Strangers in Sicily Chapters 10, 11, 12

Chapter 10 – The End of an Era

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Rob **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Too long ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter  11 –  A Honeymoon of Sorts  

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

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

“Were my letters too mushy?”

“Yeah.”  That cold word again.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

Aunt Kay started by being polite.

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

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

“What did he say?” Aunt Kay asked.

“He said he wants to see you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*CAROL*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Carol*

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

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

“No. Are you mad at me?” 

“Sometimes.”
“Vai fangulo.”

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

“You’re such a bambina.”

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

Pecado. We were good together.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13- Romance Languages

Strangers in Sicily pelting each other with plastic hammers for Carnival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*ROB*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Carol*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

was family.  Just ask my brother Fabio.”

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

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

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

“Okay!”  

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

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

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

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

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

 Unbelievable.  

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

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

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

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

“Sure. It’s natural,” she insisted.

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

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

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

***

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

*Rob*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                            *Carol*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Rob*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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