Strangers in Sicily Chapters 1 and 2

I wrote this book a few years ago with the other main protagonist, Rob. It is our story of living in Sicily for almost a year. I thought I would publish it here since, like my book of Mexico, there was a community involved. In Mexico it was a positive experience and they weren’t intentional, just families and the lifestyle up in the rural mountains. Here, in Italy, it was the remains of a commune and ended quite badly for me. I thought cohousing would be different since it had a conflict management team. HA! I have also learned that I have a knack of pissing off groups of people.

All names have been changed.

Rob is an artist and I asked him to paint this when we returned. A mi of Greek myths (Sicily was their land), me(with grapes) and Rob(statue) with people we met as other Greek legends and some other interesting things and places we saw all over the island.

Chapter 1 – Welcome to Sicily

“…quattro, tre, due, uno….”

He breathed into my hair as he counted down. It was our attempt to cool the heat between our nearly-naked bodies. To him, I was another woman to seduce. To me, he was everything I’d come to Italy to find. Sicily, perilous island of the Mafia, evil eye curses, and our own family’s dramatic fight for a piece of land.  My mother had warned me not to go there, or they’d kill me. They meaning our own turf-jealous relatives, since revenge never dies in Sicily.  They meaning the Cosa Nostra.  Or perhaps they were something else on this mysterious, distant island.

 I was determined. This was my life dream. My very DNA seemed to scream for me to learn Italian. To understand why my mother always yelled “Mama Mia!” even though nothing else in our lives felt remotely Italian.  And even, if I dared, to find my long lost relatives.  If they didn’t find me first.

I wanted to be Sicilian. To taste Sicily.  Feel Sicily inside of me, but my lover hadn’t made it that far yet. I didn’t want to be a cheater. I’d found Sicily and found a Sicilian. Was that my true destiny?  Only weeks earlier, Rob had seemed to be my destiny.  Dear, sweet Rob.  Nice, faithful American Rob.  Rob, whom I’d begged to come intern with me on the Native American Reservation, and he had.  Rob, whom I fell in love with under the fireworks on the Fourth of July at the Washington Monument, just as I blossomed into womanhood at eighteen.  Rob, who always insisted we were friends, while I longed for more. Rob, who finally, after half a decade, decided he wanted me too and agreed to follow me to Italy for a year.  Now look how I was repaying him.

I decided to talk with my Siciliano instead of going any further with him.  

“Since I was a little girl, I’ve always known I’d marry an Italian.”

His body sprang upright, and he carried me with him. “Non, e vero?  (No, could that be true?)  Me, I always knew I’d die in America!”

We looked at each other, and only the night answered with calls of crickets and toads. We kissed until we fell asleep.  Spooky.  Was this real? Was it actually happening? Was I meant to be with him and not Rob?  Was that why I came here looking for my Sicilian family, to find a Sicilian man instead?  And what would Rob think of all this when he flew in from his own summer trip to Germany, the homeland of his family?  In two weeks, time would tell.

* Rob *

August 1996, day of arrival

I wondered if history had closed the book on Sicily.  It seemed a desolate wasteland as I flew over brown hill after brown hill of roofless stone farmhouses.  I could see newer construction projects too, abandoned in various stages of completion.  Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp once declared one of his works of art “finally incompleted” when it broke. Maybe Sicily was its own living embodiment of absurdist art. Concrete highway overpasses reached for the sky and abruptly ended. It was as if everyone had suddenly left the stage, and the audience wasn’t sure whether to clap yet. Where were all the people?

They turned up soon enough, crowded into the crumbling postwar apartment blocks of Catania. There among the throngs, in her knock-off Ray Ban glasses, Carol met me with a huge smile and a hug. She immediately warned me never to say anything in Sicily if I saw a murder, or I would be the next victim.  Then she asked about my flight.  I described the abandoned landscape I’d seen. She laughed and said welcome to Sicily – life was so tough here that much of the population had emigrated over the centuries, either to Northern Italy, Australia, South America, or — like her family — to America.  Anywhere was better than here. The newer unfinished buildings and highways I’d seen were the charming result of fund-siphoning by the Mafia.

Carol wanted to stop at a café in the airport, where the barista would give us complimentary drinks and pasta di mandorla, Carol’s favorite cookies since they were only made in Sicily. Carol figured the bartender should comp us, since she’d flirted with him as she waited for my plane to arrive. He eyed me warily as we walked in. So this is the American competition, he seemed to be thinking. Not too impressive.  

Dropping my ridiculously large backpack, I flopped down at a table and bent over to tie a dragging lace on my dusty boot. Returning with frothy cappuccinos, Carol explained the journey ahead. First, we’d take a chain of buses leading to smaller and smaller towns, and eventually we’d arrive in Piazza Armerina. Then we would stop at a festival in town and get a ride to the place, in the countryside, where we were staying. I had arrived at the beginning of the Palio di Normani, the celebration of Sicily’s liberation from the Muslims.  By the Normans, of all people.  I guess they liked conquering little islands. After they took over England, in 1066, they went on a Mediterranean cruise, in 1072, and invaded Sicily. To this day there are more blond, blue-eyed Sicilians around the Norman capital of Palermo than anywhere else on the island. Light-skinned Sicilians, anywhere, are often known as Palermitani.  I loved all these incongruities, like the sight of medieval-robed re-enactors flying down Roman streets on their brand-new Vespas.

We dropped off my backpack at a friend’s empty apartment and went touring. Carol pointed out the hole in the old city wall. This was supposedly where the Normans punched through the wall and attacked the town. A little-used road passed through it now.

After the day’s re-enactment of medieval life, we joined some hippyish friends of Carol’s on a dirty hill overlooking the town.  It seemed to be a make-out point, with empty beer bottles and used condoms scattered around. From that moral high ground we watched the festival’s fireworks. This was the only part of the celebration the counter-culture types were interested in – certainly not the religious dedications that they found repulsive. 

When the fireworks reached their denouement, Carol failed to come through on getting us a ride. I retrieved my backpack from where we’d stashed it. We headed out of the city, trudging for what seemed like miles into the middle of nowhere. Wandering like a lost tribe, we passed dark farmhouses patrolled by snarling dogs. We struggled to find our way to the promised land, Girasol or “Sunflower,” the home of Carol’s hippies.  It reminded me of the British tradition of lords fancifully naming their country estates.  And indeed, the man of the house was British, a former London street punk named Mick. 

Taking one wrong turn after another in the nearly moonless night, I was exhausted after this long day of travel. I suggested that we just find some bushes to sleep in by the side of the road and locate Girasol in the morning. But Carol wouldn’t have it. So I capitulated, and we slogged ahead, the pack on my back growing heavier and heavier. My slumping posture worsened until it seemed I might snap in half. Welcome to Sicily, I thought.

* Carol *

My Sicilian great-granddad, Papa Pete, met a feisty blond Irish-American woman, and he was smitten. Grace must have loved him too, since her father swore that if she married that dirty Sicilian, he would never talk to her again. They did marry, and he never again spoke to my great-grandmom, Grace.  The bitter old man didn’t have to suffer the indignity of a Southern Italian son-in-law long, however.  He went to his grave shortly after the wedding.

My mother told stories of Papa Pete taking her to Coney Island and spoiling her rotten.  She spoke of how tall he was, of his long fingers. Now that I was in Italy, I could see her grandfather in a whole new light, as an amazing, tall Sicilian lover. My mom whispered that Grandma had told her what an entrancing lover Papa Pete had been, right up to the very end.  Were all Sicilian men such fantastic lovers?  I was curious to find out.

*ROB*

    Veronika took a long but artistic drag off her joint, and then passed the home-rolled cigarette around the campfire drum circle.  Things seemed so mixed up here in multi-cultural Europe: 1960s hotels sitting astride Neolithic ruins, friendly exchange families displaying books about Mussolini on their shelves, southern-fried American rock pumping from Mediterranean discos. Although it looked weird at first, it was starting to seem natural that people here always blend a little tobacco into their marijuana joints – spinelli.

    It was a warm night and the moon shone through gaps in the dark cloud banks above. This was my first big social gathering since arriving in Piazza Armerina. I partook of the communal cigarette and sent it on its way – Tocca ti, your turn. The Lynyrd Skynrd tape had ended, and a drum circle was breaking out. I was inspired to pick up my empty wine glass and tap out a rhythm with a spoon. I looked around for Carol through the light of the moon and campfire. She was always running off somewhere, doing a thousand things at once. Not one to miss out on any of life’s experiences, that lady.

    The first days were awkward but exciting. Carol seemed standoffish and prickly about helping me with Italian. She took me to see the weekly outdoor market that happened every Thursday. As we walked through the cobblestoned streets, I noticed that several buildings downtown had concrete barriers in front of them. They were also guarded by suspicious looking soldiers with submachine guns. Carol explained that these were government and courthouse buildings. Several judges had been killed around the island in retaliation for a crackdown on the mafia, and this was an effort to protect those that were left. I walked by quietly and was thankful that nothing exploded.

    Reaching the market at Piazza Cascino, I marveled at the blocs of vendors and shoppers. Trucks magically unfolded into rainbows of produce. There were uncountable numbers of hot girls to watch – were the unattractive ones not allowed to leave the house? There were also frumpy old widows in black, tempting smells of cheese, prosciutto, gelato, and roasted nuts, and three-wheeled Ape (“ah-peh”) truck beds with mountains of slithering snails. In the excitement, I made the mistake of asking Carol to remind me how to ask the price of some bananas. She almost took my head off and gave me a lecture on fending for myself. I didn’t soon forget it.  I suppose it was good in the long run, as I concentrated on learning to speak better. I didn’t really mind her being bitchy, I just wished she’d sleep with me!

    I settled into life at Girasol, Veronika’s house which was the only place in Sicily that would accept us as an unmarried couple in this Catholic headquarters of a country, at least temporarily.  I had visited hippie places before, so the outhouse and organic-feed chicken coop weren’t big surprises.  I was just awed by the exoticness of the local culture. The bell-clanging chorus of Mario’s cows, as this local shepherd walked his herd up our road and across the gulley.  The occasional rider on horseback passing by. This place felt like some kind of time vortex.

    This unlikely community of hippies in the heart of Sicily had begun in the late ‘70s when they migrated from all over Europe to squat on abandoned land. They fixed up old stone houses, ate wild vegetables, and tried communal living. As time passed, many caved in to yuppification. They had children, built new homes with electricity, and got washing machines and cars and computers. Luckily for us, many of their original houses were still there, now empty and available for us to use. I was going to have to check into them as possible places to stay this year since Carol had not successfully found lodging for me.  

    Girasol was one such place, but it was inhabited. In a way, Mick and Veronika were throwbacks, holdouts from an earlier era as their hippie neighbors had upgraded around them. The house was a big one-room affair with a steep wooden ladder up to a loft, from which you could gaze out a skylight to the hilltop across the valley. The valley was known locally as Vallone di Calle, or “Little Valley of Chickens.”  The house was surrounded by fruit trees, bushes, and vines, and a feast of figs, pears, apples, blackberries, mulberries, and grapes were already weighing down the branches when we arrived. I soon started learning the Italian names for these delicacies and enjoyed showing off my newly acquired knowledge.  Since childhood I’d always been a bit of a show off, teacher’s pet, and know-it-all.  Veronika laughed at me and pointed out that I should be careful. The word for fig for example, la fica, was also a slang term for a certain part of the female anatomy. I would come to learn that quite a number of things here had sexual double meanings.

    So surrounded by sexy figs, Mick and Veronika had lived at Girasol. They were dreadlocked Welsh/German street performers with two children, Hans and Sabine, ages two and four. Veronika’s fifteen-year-old lived with her father in Germany throughout the school year.  They also lived with many miscellaneous visitors, travelers, passers-by, and uncounted cats and kittens. It was quite a houseful. Lots of flies too.  It was not exceptionally unclean, but there were no screens on the windows or door.  The entrance was framed by flowers planted in combat boots.

Outside this door, under a corrugated plastic roof, was a small courtyard. Bags of chicken feed were propped against a washing machine and a large sink for washing dishes. The chicken coop perched on a hillside near an outhouse and solar shower. I soon learned that the water stayed warm for five minutes, if you were lucky. The shower provided no curtain, for modesty, but the hillside offered plenty of fig leaves.

    Inside, the house – built of wood and stone — was rustic and charming. Under a loft, a cozy living room offered a futon, storage chests, and a rustic wooden table. In the next room, the windows above the kitchen sink and stove faced a hillside. People walking down the hill could look right in and see what delicacies you’d be obliged to offer if they stopped in to say caio

Mick was actually not there at the moment, having run off with a woman named Annabella. So Veronika, tall and Tim Burton-esque with her striped leggings and eyeliner, didn’t mind people stopping by if they would help out with the kids. It was the perfect place to crash for a while as Carol and I hatched our plans for the year.

Carol wanted to see everything of significance in Sicily. I just wanted to see a beach. When I envisioned staying a year on an island in the Mediterranean, I kind of pictured being a beach bum. But Carol’s Lion’s Club exchange program just happened to be headquartered in Enna, the only completely land-locked province of Sicily.  At least at certain points on the high mountain roads, we could see the smoking volcanic peak of Mt. Etna, fifty miles away by the shore.

    It took about an hour to walk to town. Down the hill, across the stream, then up the eroded clay hillside to the dirt “road” where Mick’s and Veronika’s dead circus van rested. Then up and down the hillside accompanied by the scratching of lizards scurrying into the dry bushes.  Back across the stream, up another hill, and around some curves that offered a view of the widening valley ahead. Heading downhill again, we could tell we were finally getting closer to town, because stretches of the road were actually paved with lumpy concrete. We passed an abandoned house, on the left, where a dirt path led into another small valley and to Casa de Oscar, another hippie house that was currently available. Then on the right, perched warily above the road, was Artilio’s.

    Artilio was a local legend with a snaggle-toothed jack-o-lantern smile and piercing eyes set deep in his sun-lined face. He rarely took his black beretta hunting cap off and usually had a couple days worth of white stubble. It must have been tough for him to smooth out the wrinkles in his face enough to get a good shave. His wife had died of cancer a few years earlier after he had taken care of her day and night. He was lost when she died, and now he latched on to the local hippies for companionship. He always tried to talk newcomers into living at his place and helping with his chores.

Artilio’s house was spacious and relatively new.  People said the government had built it for him as part of his pension for service, and it surprised me that the government had actually kept its promise.  Especially after the stories I’d heard of his imprisonment for being a communist partisan in the anarchy after the war.  

Walking down the road from Girasol, we often found Artilio emerging from the trees with a basketful of mushrooms, hazelnuts, and whatever else was in season. We never knew when Artilio was watching us, either from his strategically-placed house or through the underbrush.  And we risked his wrath if we passed by without stopping to visit. That made it tough to make it to appointments in town on time, but Artilio would often offer to let me ride on the back of his Vespa, holding onto him for dear life.

I was fascinated by his life, but I never felt comfortable asking him much about it and, at first, my Italian wasn’t up to it. I was happy if I could get out a comprehensible sentence about his cat. As demanding as he could be, Artilio was also generous.  He  always offered food and drink. He made two types of pasta, one for summer and one for winter.  He usually fed us the same meal when we stopped by, and it was always delicious.

After we had eaten, socialized, and played the obligatory card game, we’d continue walking to town.  Down his steep driveway and back up the hill past a series of large country houses with jagged broken bottles cemented to the tops of their walls for security. As an additional line of defense, snarling dogs hurled themselves at the gates as we passed by. We stepped back, avoiding the foam flying from their snapping mouths, hoping the gates held. At the top of the road, this gauntlet of houses petered out, replaced by a plateau of vineyards.  Past this dusty stretch the road dipped steeply, taking several switchbacks past more homes defended by broken glass and a large dump. I enjoyed rummaging through it to find interesting Italian pop art materials.  That was always a nice payoff for making it that far. When we reached the abandoned Catholic nunnery at the bottom of the hill, we knew we were almost to town. Well, maybe just another twenty minutes.

*CAROL*

My family had to have been Catholic. Everyone in Sicily had been, and most of them still were, at least in name. The only other religions were apathy and rebellion against the hypocrisy of the Vatican, which was so close to home. By the time I was born, none of our Catholic heritage was evident in my family.  Grandma Grace, or “Catarina,” had a bad experience with a priest, and from then on my family rejected Catholicism. Supposedly the priest made a pass at one of my great-grandmothers. If he was an Italian priest, I could believe it. So all the religion my mother and aunt received was Sunday school at a Methodist church.  It later dawned on them that the only reason they were sent was so my grandparents could rush home to be alone with their conjugal duties.

On Rob’s first morning in Sicily, we woke up late.  There was no real reason to rush and get up for anything in Sicily, unless we were traveling.  Veronika came back from another brief vacation, and we caught a ride with her to town.  

Rob and I walked around looking for the Virgin Maria procession.  I was disappointed to find the procession was really boring. The flowers and the Virgin platform were pretty enough, but it wasn’t big and gaudy like the processions I had seen in Spain.  We listened to the bishop and mayor pray for the Virgin to watch over Piazza Armerina.  

Fresh toasted almonds and peanuts from the vendors helped enliven us as we walked to Giovanni’s. My two men would meet. 

I watched Giovanni’s eyes as he shook hands with Rob. I told Giovanni not to speak too much English so that Rob would pick up Italian. I was adamant about Rob learning on his own. I’d once spent a month with a woman, in the midst of a midlife crisis, in the middle of the Mexican Sierra. She’d relied on her high school Spanish – and me – to get by. Since then I’d had a pet peeve about people using me as a translator. The only way to really learn a language was to sink or swim.

Giovanni was impressed that Rob already knew a little Italian but laughed when Rob asked for “achua” instead of “aqua,” the Italian word for water. Apparently Rob was trying to sort out all the new sounds in Italian, the “ch” being a “k” and “c” being a “ch.”

When Rob went to the bathroom, as I’d hoped he would, I finally got to talk to Giovanni.

“Do you miss me?” I asked.

“In the morning when I wake up there is this odd echo whenever I say, ‘Is anyone there?’”

I laughed and said I missed him.

“I don’t feel anything for Rob.”

“I feel responsible.”

“No, it’s not your fault. If I were strong, nothing would have happened in the first place.”

Rob came out of the bathroom with an unknowing, innocent smile.  How sneaky I felt.

As we left his house, Giovanni touched my back and I wanted to kiss him. Earlier I’d almost grabbed his hand, out of habit, but managed to restrain myself. 

We still wanted to hang out together, so we all met up at Artilio’s house in the countryside. We sat in the sun, and Veronika passed around a joint. It was pleasant being lost in the Sicilian landscape, stoned with my friends.  I didn’t usually smoke pot, having given it up after a disastrous period of being a “bad girl” in high school. But this was Sicily – hedonist Greek history, hippies, motorcycles, and infidelity – I had long stopped being the puritan American girl I once was.

Veronika drove home, around three, with Rob and me. We were her new housemates, at least until we all decided what we wanted to do during the next few months.  Later, in bed, Rob and I kissed a bit, but I was tired and didn’t want to do anything with him. I dreamt I was holding a blond version of Giovanni and woke up disappointed to find out it was just Rob.

Spending the next few days hanging out at Veronika’s didn’t help. My feelings about the situation were not getting any easier. I started distancing myself from Rob and wanting Giovanni more.

Giovanni came over for dinner, with some other hippies, the next night. Rob fell asleep, and Giovanni started drawing on my arm. Then Veronika and her daughter joined him in making fake tattoos on me. It was part fun and part practice.  Veronika wanted to get into the tattoo business. She used a pen to draw fake tattoos on everyone, and she and Giovanni got into a philosophical discussion that literally put me to sleep. Apparently Giovanni took in all of Burlosconi’s bikini wearing juggle TV and listened to the Fox News propaganda and had a conservative side. Veronika didn’t own a TV and stood up for her own liberal beliefs. They swam in Italian politics which I would never understand if I wrote a PhD so I was out, like a light.

I woke up to pee just in time to see Giovanni’s headlights pulling out of the driveway as he headed down the dirt road. It made me pine for him more and made the valley between Girasol and his apartment seem more like an unbridgeable gulf.  I felt left behind with my “boyfriend.”

The next day, at the market, Rob stormed off without buying bananas because I wouldn’t help him translate, and I felt that he was not the ideal boyfriend I had imagined when I’d met him at 18. I imagined him as an adventurous hippy as myself. Depression had never touched my families’ life or myself.  My mother was pure optimist and had traveled to all seven continents. Rob’s slothlike movement and anxiety were not in the vision of when I met him under the fireworks of Washington’s capital, in the imprimt he had made on me as I left high school and started new into college that summer. He always seemed to give up so easily. I felt guilty for being mean, so I helped him find guitar strings at a music shop. I sat in Bar Charlotte, the favorite of our hippie crowd, and hoped Giovanni would pass by. I even asked if he had been there. I was frustrated to learn that I had just missed him, which seemed to be happening a lot. Was he already just a ghost of my past?

We got back to Girasol in time to change clothes and walk up the hillside obstacle course to visit Marlies and Felippe, who had hosted Veronika’s “going away” party.  They were a sweet hippie couple who had been part of the now defunct commune. Marlies was a brunette from Germany with one son by another man and another son with Felippe, who was from Rome. Vironika and her kids came for dinner too, along with some Germans from Valle Perfetta.  Rob started to catch on that life in Sicily was only running errands, eating dinner, and hanging out with friends. He hadn’t gotten to try the sex part yet.

Felippe made me feel comfortable and cracked me up. I’d never really talked with any of the Germans except Veronika and Marlies, who was exceptionally friendly — maybe she got that from her Polish father. 

Marlies asked me about our experience on the Native American reservation.  I told her how I worked with the non-profit for almost a year when I asked if they needed a biology major.  The man in charge of the outside projects turned his swivel chair around and jumped saying, “Yes”.  That’s how I got Rob to join me, he was a science major but since graduating a few years since he was just sitting around his mom and dad’s house. I assumed he’d want to continue where we left off the summer before I went away.  That’s when I finally did it – I seduced Rob with my Mexican beans.

I had just spent a year flirting with cowboys but refusing their marriage proposals in the Sierra of Mexico. I came back with one focus – I was going to get Rob.  We had been friends since that Washington summer and nothing. Now was the time. After years of chatting all night when I came in from college, I wasn’t going to let him go.  

I invited him to learn how to make the beans he enjoyed when I made a feast over Christmas when I flew in on a week’s break from a land of no electricity or running water.  Making those beans were a long process and I started it at seven at night – sifting through the beans for dust and rocks, then cooking them for four hours.  I even dressed like a Mexican woman waiting to meet her  mate at a wedding dance – in a mini skirt, poofed up hair, and smooth nylons.  We talked as the beans boiled and I sat close to him. He liked the feel of the nylons and I let him touch galore. I was also a bit touch derived since men and women couldn’t touch in Mexico, only dance.  

By the time the beans were cooked and I moved them to a hot pan with melted lard and mooshed them together, we were way on our way to making out.  After the dinner which was way too late for him to drive home, I invited him to sleep over and conveniently my mom was out of town, in Russia I think.  So we finally kissed. We were finally a couple, I thought.

We spent a few days at his grandmother’s beach house in Prince Frederick on the Chesapeake Bay.  I thought we’d go all the way and for the first time in my life I asked the guy. He said no.  Wow, I had even embarrassed myself buying the condoms at the small gas station.  After that, we only had a day until I was going away on a train trip across the country with my best friend, Ami.  He said no.  Maybe another time. Or maybe never.

So, when he got to Minnesota I thought it’d be yes. Again, even before he arrived he made it clear that was not going to be part of his internship.  I dealt with the blow fine, keeping it professional – just seeing him at the office and staying at my rented apartment. He stayed with our boss at her lake cabin. I worked the weekends at the casino, waitressing and saving money for Italy.  

Then, it happened. Winter melted and the maple trees had cold enough nights and warm enough days to run their sweetness.  The non-profit needed help with their syrup making industry and wanted me to photograph the project.  Rob and I arrived ready to work but I found a surprise. For the first time since I arrived, there were young people. Everyone at the non-profit were over 30, now they had young, and may I add, handsome, young 20 year olds.  I flirted unabashedly. It must have been so obvious because the boss said it looked like the spring rut, and not talking about the deer.

I was on a high driving Rob back to the lake cabin. I had a car whereas he usually caught rides.  I didn’t understand why he felt so down.  He had been accepted in. His blond hair didn’t repel him even when some people thought it suspicious to have new white people running around the rez.

He took in a deep breath and admitted his feelings, “I’m jealous.”

“Of what?”

“You talking with all those guys.”

“Why do you care?  You made it clear, we are just friends”  I may have snuck a little smile. Would my patience be rewarded?

“I know but when I think of you being one of those guys old lady I get angry.”  On the rez, the romantic term for your spouse was “Old man” or “old lady”.  

“So, what are you saying, exactly?”

“I want you to be my old lady”

“Okay”  And with that it was done.  We left the friend label. We did sleep together and used those condoms I bought, ,still in my purse.  The boss was even happy saying now we could share one room and open up rooms for the other interns arriving for the summer.  My lease had ended so we got a love nest in the farm the nonprofit just purchased.  The only problem was that I planned to go to Italy for one year.  Luckily, Rob agreed to tag along to that new place too. And now, I was leaving him in my dust tracks.  So When I told Marlies about our experience and how Rob was called General Custer due to his blond hair, it reminded me that once we finally got together I was christened “Custer’s wife.” It pained me to remember how blissful my life with Rob had once seemed.  I wondered if I should just jump into his arms and stay there.

The mysterious Annabella was also at the party. Far from being the evil strumpet who stole Mick from his family, she was a sweet, funny, strong woman who easily won me over. And not just me – even Veronika forgave her, going as far as to let Annabella come back and stay with us at Girasol, since her tryst with Mick hadn’t worked out. I think they bonded over complaining about Mick and his many flaws. They also looked similar – Annabella had dreadlocks too, but since she was Italian, they were brunette. Her body was stockier, but she looked cute in a mini skirt.  I figured Northern Italy must have a better educational system since, while Sicilians didn’t seem to know any English, hers was flawless.

It was yet more evidence that this land had none of the puritan values of the good old USA.  In America people don’t generally forgive and befriend people who steal their partners.  They go on shows like Dr. Phil and rip their faces off. Cheating, to me, had been a deadly serious infraction, but here people were taking it so lightly. I mean, a whole music industry had grown up, through the rural jukeboxes of America, based on the woes of cheating.  No wonder country music had never caught on in Europe.

Annabella agreed with Giovanni that “Sicilia e magica.” She loved the island and felt the power and pull of its active volcanoes.  Etna’s constant puffs of steam got to her. She felt connected to this land, even though she was from Trieste.  It seemed to represent the pure, ancestral essence of Italy, missing in the modernized North.  Annabella theorized that the volcanoes in Trapani and Napoli formed a powerful triangle with Etna.  I was afraid of this magic.  These volcanic fires were ruining my life, or at least burning to ashes all the ideas I’d had when I’d arrived on the island. 

Veronika and her kids led us on the hike back to the house under the rabbit-filled moon. Italians see the  profile of a hare, instead of a man, in the moon. Rob and I lagged behind. We stopped to look over a hillside; the trees were silhouetted in silver light. Rob gently touched my arm and said, “Have you ever made love outside by the full moon?”

I was surprised. He had never been spontaneous like that. But I didn’t feel anything. Nothing like I felt when Giovanni simply said, “Facciamo il amore?”(Let’s make love?)

I laughed, and I guess Rob figured I wanted to walk home before we lost sight of Veronika. I didn’t know if he noticed I was avoiding sex.  Or that I didn’t find his jokes as funny as I used to. A few days earlier, after his outdoor shower at Girasol, he’d covered himself with a fig leaf and said he was Adam and I must be Eve. I just thought he was a dork.  A month earlier I would have thought the joke was the cleverest and jumped into his arms to play the part of his God-given mate.

I worried about the next two weeks. Veronika and Annabella were going to the beach for another mini-vacation — it’s not like they had day jobs — to figure out their lives after Mick.   What was it going to be like alone in the house with Rob for two weeks? Before I would have thought of it as a honeymoon, but now I didn’t know how I could avoid him that long.  I didn’t want to be there with him. I actually preferred to be alone and in danger of being raped and murdered by the lurking shepherds of the valley. All I could see now, when I looked into his blue-green eyes, were his flaws.  All my old resentments for things he had done in the past had come back. I ruminated on all the false starts and roadblocks in our relationship before he finally asked me to be his “old lady” on the reservation.  And then it was only because he got jealous of all the cute boys in the bush. Everything was pouring out. I had been afraid I wouldn’t have any feelings for Rob, but I did have one: anger.  

I was mad at him for always sitting around or sleeping and never offering to help me, or anyone else, with chores. Would this always bother me?  Were these feelings a sign that I didn’t really like Rob? Or was I just scared of a long-term relationship?  Maybe I wanted the unattainable perfect man. I knew he didn’t exist, and the closest prospect was a Lupo Solitario, a self-proclaimed lone wolf, probably fucking other women at this very moment. After I left at the end of the year, I would probably never even hear from Giovanni again.  I just couldn’t decide what I was supposed to do.

Rob painted the duomo of Piazza Armerina. I love this painting but in my move to cohousing it got a little puncture. A bad sign?

Chapter 2 – Not the Trip I Paid For 

*Carol*

In my family you don’t mess with the other woman.  Papa Nick and Catarina got married and had three daughters. Four actually, but the second daughter died before living a year. Her name was Josephina and when she died, they passed her name on to my Aunt Jo. That had always seemed creepy to me, but it must have made sense to turn-of-the century Catholic Sicilians.  Aunt Rosalie was the first born and Grandma Nettie was the youngest.

Great Aunt Rosalie fell in love with a man who moved to Washington, D.C. to study law. Apparently, he had another woman or fell in love with someone there, and he chose to marry her instead.  Aunt Rosalie didn’t show her hurt, but she showed up at his wedding.  She sat right in the front row.  When he came out to see his future wife, he saw Rosalie, and his face went completely white. At least he and his bride were wearing matching colors at that moment.  I wonder how that marriage turned out.  Maybe Aunt Rosalie’s evil eye cast a curse on the marriage and, in twenty or thirty years, when divorce became acceptable, they succumbed to that trend.

I’m not good at keeping secrets. I can keep others’ secrets pretty well, but not my own. I have to spill it.  I need to roll around the options and discuss things. It was killing me keeping a secret from Rob. One day, we were in town running errands and ended up having to stay through the dreaded two-hour lunch break. No one ever invited us over to lunch.  They would just bid us a “buon pranzo” and go eat their pranzos and leave us to the snacks at the bar or dying of boredom in a park. We sat on a bench and waited for the stores to open again.  

We started talking about kids and our futures, and I just blurted out, “What would you do if I was pregnant?”

Rob replied without skipping a beat, “I’d congratulate you on fulfilling your dream.”

It took him a moment to realize that he always uses the best precautions and that we hadn’t been together for almost two months.  

He carefully asked, “By another man?” and then paused to think.  “I know you wouldn’t do that. You’re not the cheating kind.”

How do you know?”

“You told me yourself that you never cheat.”

“Well,” I said, “maybe some things change in Sicily.”

“You cheated?”

“Yes,” I admitted both sheepishly and proudly.

“Have I met him?”

“No.” I lied. I could only bear to drop one bombshell at a time.

“Who was it?”

“Just a guy.”

“Is it still going on?”

”Sort of.”

“What’s his name?”

“I can’t tell you. Let’s just call him … um … Bruno.”

I didn’t know anyone by that name, so it seemed a wise choice. It even sounded Italian.

“Do you need to take another AIDS test?”

    “Oh, Rob, don’t ask these questions. I’ve already said too much.”

To my surprise he wasn’t upset.  He didn’t yell at me or desert me in the lonely park.

We had a long talk. It wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be. I was honest, and we even laughed. It was an important conversation; I told him how I’d changed and revealed all my doubts and worries about being in a long-term relationship with him, in Sicily, with his dependence on others and history of depression. I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted and I would need time.

We actually left the park feeling pretty good. We even held hands as we walked to Giovanni’s. We made small talk in the wolf’s kitchen, and then Rob fell asleep on the couch. I wrote on a piece of paper and slid it across the table to Giovanni. It said, ”Lui sa.” (He knows.)

     Giovanni’s eyes grew big. I wondered what he thought of us weird Americans who obsess over cheating and even tell each other when we stray, unlike the Italians, who cheat incessantly but remain secretive and two-faced about it.  Someone later told me it was an Italian Catholic thing, to stay married no matter what.  Family was so important that, even if a spouse was cheating, you had to keep up appearances.  

I grabbed the paper back and wrote “ma non chi” (But he doesn’t know who.)

I whispered to Giovanni that it was no big deal and that I told Rob I just wanted to be friends.  Just then Rob stirred. We selected a movie from Giovanni’s broad selection of American videos. It was Jesus Christ Superstar, and I wondered if that was yet another message from above.  After all, being a skinny long-haired Mediterranean, Giovanni did resemble Jesus.  We headed out the door afterwards, and when Rob wasn’t looking, I blew a kiss to Giovanni.

 As we walked out of the building, Rob looked sad.  

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I was just thinking that if Carol, who has liked me for six years, doesn’t want me anymore, who ever will?”  

Guilt rose into my throat.

We were walking  home when a guy in one of the three-wheeled ape trucks offered us a ride up the long steep hill. Rob and I laughed as the tiny vehicle struggled under our body weight.  Maybe three wheels just weren’t a good idea, like third wheels in a relationship.  Now we were three, and it would be an uphill battle. At least that’s what I thought.

Zeus was in a fight with a giant some say was Enkelados, others say it was Typhoeus.  Zeus valiantly threw a big rock at his foe. The huge boulder pegged the creature, and he’s still stuck under it.  But when the monster gets restless, he makes that rock — called Sicily – shake. That was the Greeks’ way of explaining the island’s many earthquakes. The conquered beast is still struggling to escape.

The next day I escaped and went to town alone. I needed to be free from Rob’s depression and my desperate attempts to find reasons to hate him. If I could hate him, it would assuage the horrible guilt consuming every part of my body. I made the obligatory stop at Artilios’s.  The old man had suffered much but never lost his feisty spirit. Maybe I could find some guidance from him.

I said hello and all the niceties. He told me he was heading to town and offered me a ride on his Vespa.  Artilio always made offers you couldn’t refuse.  Not by putting severed animal heads in your bed, but by yelling, pouting, cursing, and the dreaded cold shoulder.   

I thought we’d die just riding down his paved driveway.  It would be certain  death going up the gravel road. Somehow I lived to write this, and we reached the asphalt and whisked downhill to town. 

I thanked Artilio, and we went our separate ways to do our duties in town. Mine included a little shopping, sitting and eating a peach in a piazza, and talking with a Lion I saw.  Then, since I was finally alone, I headed towards Piazza Mariscaldi, letting Giovanni sleep until eleven in the morning. I rang up to him.  He sounded tired when he answered but said, “Oh, Carol!” with what sounded like surprise.  I came up to find him in bed in his underwear, a very risky situation which we took advantage of. Three times

As I’ve said, the Sicilians told me that there are only three things to do on their island, sleep, eat, and have sex. So to keep things safe, you do one instead of the other.  I got my fill of sex, so the next day, with Rob, I tried to cook a proper Sicilian meal which the mother of one of the Lions had taught me. She’d showed me how to make pasta from scratch and roll it into little noodles to dry. She’d also taught me how to stew and strain the tomatoes into a fabulous sauce.

It was doomed from the start. Italy doesn’t just sell flour – it sells ten kinds of flour, which I had been horrified to discover, earlier in the summer, when I tried to make Mexican tortillas.  There is flour for pasta, flour for bread, and flour for sweets. I bought and used the wrong one.  The noodles looked like dead worms floating in a sea of red, but at least the sauce tasted good. We fished out the worms and gave them to the cats, who loved them.  I cooked some store-bought pasta. My long day of cooking didn’t end too badly.

I don’t know if it was the pasta worms, but for the next few days I was sick. It started with an achy feeling in my arm and back, like a flu. Then came the runs which I could directly blame on my Frankenstein pasta mush worms.  It also felt like PMS, and luckily morning sickness quickly got ruled out.

I spent most of my time in bed with occasional visits from  Artilio.  His visits weren’t too merciful, as he seemed intent on lecturing me on my behavior. Maybe he thought I was sick because the Universe was punishing me. He asserted that women should not run from one man to another as if it were a sport. What rumors had the old man heard? Was this just coincidental advice? I shrugged it off – he was from a different generation. Either way it didn’t make me feel better.

I also tried talking to Enzo, a neighbor,  who seemed nice enough for a shepherd. His shirt was dirty and his belly stretched it out.  He was in his young thirties and his hair needed a trim but held tight to some sticks, maybe from chasing sheep in the orchards.  I liked getting to know a “scary” shepard, but I felt weak and had to excuse myself to go back upstairs to sleep.  Rob walked into town one night and came home earlier than I’d expected. Apparently he’d caught a ride home after becoming a town celebrity. I was glad he was finally enjoying himself in Sicily, ironically, without me around.

*ROB*

During the Normandy festival, there was a karaoke contest.  Carol said she wasn’t feeling well, so I trudged into town by myself. Always a wannabe rock star, I couldn’t pass the opportunity up, but I panicked and almost backed out a couple of times.  

    I found my way to the Piazza Crocifisso and figured out how to sign up and sing.  They only had a few English selections, so I chose John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  I had only sung karaoke once before, at a country dive in Minnesota where I puzzled everyone with “Mack the Knife.”  This was a much bigger event,  putting me on a giant stage in front of a crowd of hundreds.  I didn’t have any booze or weed to relax with, but somehow I felt confident, in my element.  The MC introduced me and handed me the mic, and I quickly figured out how to use it.  I was loving this.  I must have looked like a real American grunge rocker up there, in my dusty boots, denim, and long curly hair.  I watched beautiful girls in the audience smile to one another and point at me, and I even got them waving their arms in the air in time with the music!  This was fantastic. This was how I wanted to live life.  

    After my moment in the spotlight, I bowed, told the audience grazie, and climbed back offstage.   The last contestant was a local, he sang some patriotic song that got the crowd singing.  Italians sure are an enthusiastic bunch.  Voting came next, and to my chagrin, the emcee crowned the local guy with first place.  I was sure the crowd had cheered more for me, but I guess they couldn’t let some foreigner strut in and take first place in their patriotic festival.  My second-place prize was a bit underwhelming. I had come all the way to Italy for an NBA Basketball t-shirt.  At least I got a kiss on both cheeks from the mayor.  The chance to be on stage had been the real prize anyway.  

          The contest over, the crowd started to disperse.  It was late and dark, how the hell was I supposed to get back to Girasol now? Bar Charlotte, where I might have a chance of meeting someone from the hippie crowd, would be closed. I didn’t know Giovanni well enough to ask him for a ride. I looked around at the audience, my former fans, but no one seemed interested in talking to me.  What had happened to all the hot adoring girls?  I was crestfallen.  What was it worth to be a good singer when you didn’t have money and limousines afterward?  I shrugged and headed out of town on foot.  Fortunately, a guy who I had talked to passed me on the road.  He stopped and asked if I needed a lift, and I thanked him profusely.  He was a bit chagrined when I led him on the winding potholed dirt roads toward Girasol.  He should have realized how we hippies lived.  I thanked him, he praised my performance again, and I stumbled the rest of the way home, through the moonlit night, to a sleeping Carol.  In the morning I would share with her the tale of my karaoke triumph and how I was starting to like this place.

*CAROL*

I was still feeling crappy several days later, but I had to go to town to buy gruska for Veronika’s chickens. It was some combination of flour, wheat and bread.  I guess this was another brand of Italian flour just for chickens.  

I had gotten a ride in with Marlies and Felipe after they had invited us to lunch.  I could get up and walk sometimes, but at other times I felt totally sick and could barely move.  

I really liked talking with Marlies. She understood why I had broken up with Rob. When she’d come to Sicily twenty years earlier, she hadn’t known a word of Italian but she’d felt the magic of the island. How come everyone embraced this magic but me?

After I hunted down the gruska for the chickens, I tried to hunt down a ride home to Girasol. I was feeling sick again, and I was in no mood to haul this huge bag of chicken feed uphill for seven kilometers. Giovanni wasn’t home.  Marlies and Felipe were nowhere to be seen, but I did find Enzo. He still seemed harmless enough.

     I should have heeded the warnings. As we drove up the hill, he kept commenting how “bella”(beautiful) I was. That’s never a good sign.  I tried to steer the conversation in another direction.

    “So, how are the sheep?”

“You are a bella regaza.”

“Burn any leaves lately?

“Such a beautiful girl.”

My strategy wasn’t working. Maybe I should have asked if he ever got syphilis from one of his flock.

Mi piaci.

Oh, he likes me. Not the sheep. Well at least he’s not into bestiality.  Will I ever make it home?

We got up the hill, and he embellished his one track conversation. “We are friends. We should have fun.”

Buddy, you are older, bigger and dirtier than me. I don’t see any fun in that.

I just wanted a ride home, but he wanted to take me for a different type of ride. He made that clear when he didn’t take the turn to Girasol and went down another dirt road which I had never seen. We were stopped by a gate. He said, “I don’t have a key so we can make love in the car or you can walk home.

I couldn’t believe it. He even put his hand on my shoulder. I jumped out, shut the door, and took the walking option. I squeezed through the gate which, fortunately, had a big enough gap for a person but not a vehicle. I fumed the whole way back to Girasol. How could he? I was sick. That’s why I needed a ride. And I was getting sick of all these horny Sicilian guys.  Giovanni was acting like I was just one of his kitchen sluts — that’s where most of the action happened at his house since his army cot bed was so uninviting. I wasn’t feeling loved or cared about. Just fucked. Here I had been saying “vete a fungulo” to the world, and I was the one being fucked. 

My anger changed  to fear. The path grew longer and the sky darker. Enzo had left me in the middle of nowhere. Maybe he would come back to rape me, like he probably did to his sheep.

Relief swept over me when I finally spotted a familiar light. I yelled out “Rob!” and got no answer.  I could tell I had found Girasol when I walked past the run-down circus van.

I had made it back. I was safe. The path, luckily, did lead back to where I needed to go.  Unfortunately, Rob wasn’t there, but he’d left a note saying Artilio had invited him over for dinner. I missed him. Or at least I felt so sick and used and disgusted by Sicilian men that it felt like I missed him. 

Why did I let a sweet American man go? A man who really understands me, and doesn’t just want to screw me because it’s convenient and possible?

When Rob came home, I greeted him with passion. He didn’t hold back either, and we made out until we fell asleep. We still had not consummated our relationship on the island, but it was looking like we might.  The next morning he greeted me by saying, “Good morning my lovely unfaithful.”  

He was definitely taking the situation in stride.  But I was the one in for the biggest surprise. He told me he actually liked the idea of our threesome. He enjoyed the competition. He said, “I think I can do better than he can,” not even knowing who the other guy was.  That felt like permission to me. My guilt ended. Boys, let the games begin.

Later that day we went to town and ended up at Giovanni’s house. He invited us to a party.  We drove around with him in the countryside but, again, could not find the place. What was up with these isolated country parties which not even local Sicilians could find? Was it the hilly landscape, poor urban planning and signage, bad direction giving, crazy Italian drivers, or all of the above?

That’s how the whole thing started with Giovanni – us getting lost.  He was Veronika’s only ride before she went through the Sicilian month of bureaucratic torture to buy a used car.  I met her at Bar Charlotte (bars were also snack establishments and family places during the day in Sicily) so she could see if the Canadian traveler who vouched for me had chosen a winner or a home wrecker(worse than her husband, that is).  I had told everyone with an ear, or two, that I wanted to stay all year after the Lion’s Exchange Program ended.  I got plenty of offers until I mentioned my boyfriend and the reply was “oh”.  Then, one day I met a Canadian who mentioned a bunch of hippies from Germany living in the hills.  Next thing I knew I was meeting Veronika who wanted a house sitter.

And she was a package deal with Giovanni. I didn’t notice him at first but after dropping off Veronika and I checked out Girasol he invited me over to lunch. Lunch was always boring so I said sure. We had a nice innocent lunch. Only once did I think, “This old man is kinda handsome.”  Passing thought.  38 is way too old for a 24 year old, and I was doing all this house hunting for Rob.  My beloved Rob.

However, we met up again at a hippy party where everyone spoke German and didn’t bother to use their English, or Italian for that matter, with me.  So, he said there was another party and I jumped in his car again.  True to Sicily, we couldn’t find the party.  One flirtation led to another. He talked days about the magic of Sicily, the importance of love, etc. etc. and my house sitting at Girasol became a job for two and I leaped into his arms and a territory of cheating I had never known before.  Of course, only after we had crossed into full blown cheating did he mention that he has a few lovers.  That would have been useful information before I digressed on the one I thought was the one.

We got back to Giovanni’s house late, and I asked if I could come up to watch a few minutes of the midnight broadcast of CNN.  It was in English, and I hadn’t had much news from home in a while. Rob chose to sleep in the car.  The minute we walked in, I had one eye on the TV and the other on Giovanni, who’d started touching me all over. 

“Can we stay over? That’ll be easier.”

”I’d feel uncomfortable with Rob in the other room.”

“He won’t mind. He said he likes the competition of another man.”
”Really?”
”Yes.”
”Hmm, I don’t know what to think about that.”  Rob had thrown Giovanni an American curveball.

Was I becoming the victim of some male ego game? What was going on with these guys? And with me? I didn’t quite like the idea that they both thought this was okay since, at heart, I still felt like I was a one-man–at-a-time type of gal. What would I do with two?  The next morning, we begged another ride to town. I found a public phone to call the American naval base at Segonella, just outside Catania. I figured I had to see a doctor for my ongoing illness. The pain was not going away. I didn’t want to miscommunicate about medical conditions, so I wanted an American doctor.

It was such a treat to hear English on the phone – thoughts of home flooded back. The staff was super nice even while explaining that, as a civilian, I could not go onto the base unless it was an emergency.  They gave me the name of an Italian doctor who worked at their hospital and knew perfect English.  They suggested I might need some gallbladder tests, which weren’t a big deal. What a relief. 

We walked over to Giovanni’s so I could tell him the doctor would be calling his place to schedule an appointment. He wasn’t home, but his brother let me into the building and I wrote a note to leave in his mailbox. When I met Rob back outside, I got a horrible surprise. Giovanni pulled up in his green Volvo station wagon, and he wasn’t alone. He saw me and quickly parked around the corner. He said something to the passenger and got out of the car to talk to me and his brother. His clueless brother, not noticing my heart shattering all over the sidewalk, said, “Look, Giovanni’s here.” 

Oh yippee, with another woman. What a nightmare! I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t with Fabio there. Giovanni came up casually and said “ciao.” I told him about the doctor and was about to run away when his other brother showed up. It was the first time I had been around all three, so I snapped a photo.  Seeing it today reminds me how I felt – I can still see that other woman, his other lover, skinnier and younger and prettier, parked around the corner. She is not actually in the photo, but I will never forget her.

I tried not to think about Giovanni being with her as Rob and I got a ride to Marlies and Felipe’s for dinner.  Throughout the meal all I could think was, “He’s fucking. He’s fucking her. What the fuck am I doing with this guy? What am I doing, or not doing with Rob? Giovanni’s fucking her. I actually saw her. How many others are there? How many people are playing this twisted game?”

When Rob and I were finally alone, I had to spill. I had to process this new development. I tried to talk about Giovanni, under the pseudonym of “Bruno,” again, but that didn’t do the trick. I had to explain more, how I felt awful even needing Giovanni’s phone and home as a place of refuge. I felt like I had invaded his lupo solatario life, and now I’d gotten burned, getting a glimpse of one of the other sheep he was devouring.

I blurted out, “Rob, are you ready to find out who Bruno is?”

”I guess so.”

We both laughed nervously.

 “Did I see Bruno with this other woman too?”  He guessed.

“Yes.  It’s Giovanni.”

“But you said I hadn’t met him.”

“I lied.”

He thought a minute. “I wondered if Giovanni liked you.”That was it.  He wasn’t angry. I almost wished he would get angry or jealous, leave me, or at least make me choose. That would have made the whole affair clearer, at least for me.

About CJ

I was a Spanish teacher for 5 years in the Public School system in 3 different states. I homeschooled and taught at a democratic free school. I heard about cohousing in 2010 and wanted to move in right away. I met a group building one in 2018 and got to move in the summer of 2019. It only took a year to want out.
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