A nightmare for me and what I naively thought couldn’t happen in cohousing until I was proven very wrong. Conflict avoidance always hurts someone
Chapter 14 – Island Hopping
Leaving our Sicilian affairs in Carol’s capable hands, I traced the path of Sicily’s Norman conquerors back to England. Immigration and customs agents grilled me at Heathrow. An American who had supposedly been living in Italy, but had no passport stamps to prove it? Didn’t they know how inefficient Italian bureaucracy was? They couldn’t find any contraband on me. They seemed more concerned about natives of recent British colonies, like the Pakistanis in line behind me, than about citizens of older colonies like America. They let me pass into the country.
I headed for the Manchester train. I was meeting my friend Abby from last summer’s “work camp” in Germany. When I’d first arrived in Europe, I’d worked with her, for a few weeks, at the volunteer job in Glucksberg, where an institute for alternative architecture and energy was being built. When we took breaks on the Black Sea beaches, I tried not to stare as Abby and the other girls whisked off their bikini tops, catching rays with their perfect, perky breasts. I loved Europe.
Everyone invited each other to visit after camp. Abby didn’t seem too happy that I was taking her up on it now. It wasn’t spring break like in Germany. It was finals week, and she was overwhelmed with schoolwork. She warned me that she couldn’t show me around. That was fine. I just wanted a roof to stay under.
Abby gave me a map and sent me off to Manchester to explore whatever there was to see in this bleak industrial town. I was excited to soak up whatever feelings I could conjure there, as I waxed romantic about the city that produced musical greats like the Happy Mondays and Morrissey. Everyone I told about my love of the Smiths rolled their eyes, embarrassed. They liked techno.
Exhausting the possibilities of “Madchester,” I hopped the train to Liverpool for the Magical Mystery Tour. It was magical how everyone sounded like the Beatles! The tour started in an overblown “museum” full of Beatles pictures and a nonstop Beatles soundtrack. Music continued on the bus as we headed into city traffic. I was disappointed that the bus was nondescript, not painted as a psychedelic tribute. But I soon realized that was a good thing. At several stops, locals were so tired of tourists that they yelled, gestured, and told us to F-off. At least that’s how I interpreted the angry slang.
We saw John’s art school, the lads’ childhood homes, and the hospitals where they were delivered. As we passed through Penny Lane, the excited tour guide yelled that we should look quickly, John Lennon’s first wife’s second cousin was crossing the street!
The sign at the entrance of Strawberry Fields was almost completely covered with graffiti. I had a Japanese tourist take a picture of me playing air guitar in front of it anyway.
At the end of the day, I stopped for a beer at what claimed to be the Cavern Club. The city fathers had actually torn down the original club in a fit of 1970’s urban renewal. A subway stop was supposed to have been built there, but the train never came. So eventually the city rebuilt the club. All the walls and doors in the alley were tagged with messages from visiting fans. It made for interesting reading since cleaning crews couldn’t paint over them as fast as they accumulated.
I would have liked to see more in England, like my old hero Ozzy Osbourne’s hometown, Birmingham – maybe they had a Diary of a Bat-Eating Madman tour? But Carol expected me on the Emerald Isle.
Now it was a new month, and I was in a new country. I’d flown to London alone then wandered the city by myself. I had a bad track record when I was left alone. I went to one of the museums and noticed all the beautiful paintings were made by Italians. They sure were good at art and love.
There is an artistic streak in my family. For the longest time I didn’t think I had that creativity. I can’t paint or draw like my grandmother and cousins, who have careers in cartooning and illustrating childrens’ books. My grandmother spent hours painting on her porch at their Florida winter house, or sketching me when I spent the summer on Long Island. Once she even sculpted my head. I loved the attention. Now that she’s gone, it’s nice to have her paintings, especially the ones she made just for me. It’s like I still have a part of her with me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that most people in Sicily had a knack for painting, and at least one amazing artwork in everyone’s home was created by a family member.
I was a loyal friend and shopped for the groceries and books Mick wanted since he hadn’t been home in years. I was rescued from my loneliness at the hostel, where I had two polite Australian roommates. But the next morning I had to find my own way to the airport. Rob found me in the waiting area for our flight to Dublin.
“How was the Beatles tour?” I asked.
“Grooooo-vy!” He was still enjoying his fantasy world of the ‘60s.
“Did you talk to Helmut?” he asked.
“No,” I sighed. “He’s never around. I just left a note.”
“About the firewood?”
“And the bombola?”
“Yes, I told her to leave some money if all the gas was used up since it was so hard for you to get it up there. Stop worrying, we’re on vacation!”
“What did you do while I was gone?”
“Same old same old. It’s Sicily. Look, it’s time to board.”
I wondered if Rob knew I meant the same old hook-ups with Giovanni.
We stayed at the youth hostel in Dublin and wandered around the city. It was weird to be in a country where we both had ancestors. The Genealogical Center was well established but difficult to use, plus you had to pay! Formerly a poor island like Sicily, from which everyone emigrated, Ireland had built a whole industry around genealogical research. They sold trinkets with family symbols, coats of arms posters, and a variety of Irish Pride items. It was so different from Sicily, where people thought I might as well have been looking for my ancestors from Mars. I lost interest in finding family in Ireland and enjoyed the pub music instead.
Flames ripped through the night of April 7th, 1915, as a German torpedo took down the passenger ship Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. We happened to be there just in time for the anniversary of that event. Among the passengers who died was art patron Hugh Lane. We visited the gallery named in his honor, and I was enthralled. Carol couldn’t get the reminder of German brutality out of her head.
Venturing further back in history, we lingered over the ancient Celtic gold at the National Museum, where it had been brought from the peat bogs. For the rest of the trip, I kept an eye out for anything glittering when we passed marshes. Whether left by Celts or leprechauns, it would be fine with me.
Carol started feeling sick, maybe adjusting from the Mediterranean climate. I ventured out on my own and strolled the River Liffey. Like the Seine in Paris and the Tiber in Rome, the river was completely walled in with streets called “quays” on either side. It was more like a canal than a river, but it was still scenic, and I envisioned possible paintings. The Guinness brewery beckoned from the hill beyond, and I wished I had time to stop there for a taste. But I was trying to find the Modern Art museum. One fellow told me “mind yourself,” because I would be passing through some sketchy neighborhoods.
I finally found the place, close to closing time. I hurried through the many rooms of art both traditional and new. I slowed down to chat with a couple of fetching female guards. They finally kicked me out when it was time to unplug the video installations. I kicked myself for not asking if they’d join me for a pint somewhere.
As I left, a gang of youths came down the street behind me. I tried not to look too nervous as I glanced back to check them out. I noticed the “leader” of the pack was in front, flipping a coin in the air as he walked. My heart rate increased. I hoped to make it to the main road before they caught up with me. After a couple of blocks, the group turned off onto a side street. I coasted down from my adrenaline rush. Visions of A Clockwork Orange had been dancing in my head. Had the leader been tossing his coin to decide “heads,” we jump this tourist, or “tails,” we turn to get a beer? I seemed to have lucked out, at least in my imagination.
Nights bustled in Dublin. In Sicily everyone seemed to have hidden artistic talent, but here they were incredible musicians. Every pub had people unpacking violins, mandolins, banjos, and flutes from various-shaped cases. Someone at one table would start a traditional song, and the whole bar would join in with instruments and vocals! I was astonished and proud of my Irish ancestry. I was even able to join in, as my dad had played Clancy Brothers records for us as kids.
The city had another musical surprise in store. One of our hostel mates had an extra ticket to the Bob Dylan show. She was a dreadlocked American who had gotten pregnant during her travels. I think Carol was jealous that she wasn’t pregnant from her travels too. This woman was in Ireland to collect “Bog Oak,” pieces of acid-blackened ancient wood which she carved and sold – they were reputed to have mystical pagan powers. I guess if you couldn’t get bog gold, this would have to do.
It was interesting that both Dylan and Robbie Robertson were on tour at the same time, and I got to see them both. I wondered if they ran into each other along the way and talked about old times, like when they were nearly booed offstage, in 1966, in these very British Isles. The show I got into didn’t feature just Dylan though. Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell were on the bill too. For twelve pounds, that seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse. They performed fantastic sets, Dylan doing all his greats like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” I danced all night. It was a fitting final night in the
On the bus rides around the island, I was amused to notice a ring of white on the bushes surrounding every field we passed. It was wool ripped off local sheep that got too close to the blackberry vines. It seemed like a lot of valuable wool being lost, but no one seemed concerned enough to dig it out from the thorns. It was not the American attitude of using up every last bit of a resource, but maybe they would need low-paid immigrants to do such odious work.
Offaly featured a fantastic bed and breakfast, quite a step up from our normal style, but there wasn’t a hostel in town. Rifling through the phone book, trying to find a place to stay, I called a couple of “Public Houses” thinking they might be hostels. The surprised bartender on the other end set me straight – these were just “pubs.” Silly yank.
We called a cab for the festival. All the way the driver ranted about Ireland’s drinking problem and his struggles in A.A. He complained about the festival, saying he hated picking up drunks. That dampened my mood a bit, as we had arranged for him to pick us up again afterwards. I fought the temptation to have a delicious Guinness, lest our cabbie smell it on me when he picked us up.
Soon we were mulling over our Irish experiences on the flight back to Sicily. The British Airways stewardesses amazed me in their short plaid skirts and blouses straight out of the ‘60s. The plane felt like a time capsule. Returning to Sicily seemed equally unreal. I was also nervous about the head cold I’d been nursing. I worried that my ear drums would explode. I asked one of the air hostesses if they had any decongestants, but they only had aspirin. I popped those just in case. As the plane descended, the pressure in my head turned to shooting pain that no amount of frantic gum-chewing or head-smacking seemed to cure. By the time we landed I was ready to scream, sure the POP of an eardrum would be the last sound I ever heard. I soon discovered returning to Sicily was going to be a pain in more ways than one.
Papa Nick didn’t settle well into New York. He missed the homeland so much he gave up and returned to Sicily with Catarina. This was before they had children, he could be impetuous. He even opened a new store, but he spent too much time hunting in the hills and his business went under. So back to the US they went. I could have been born and raised in Sicily, if not for those rascally rabbits. I had to return to the motherland to burrow down to my own roots.
Our return to Sicily coincided with the second coming of Aunt Kay. We met her at the familiar Jolly Hotel in Palermo, rented a car, and drove to Gibellina. Pepino was stunned to see Aunt Kay. Wanting it to be a surprise, she hadn’t warned him she was coming. She was pleased with his reaction, but Pepino’s mother wasn’t. She had caught wind of his interest in this older American woman and heartily disapproved. Like all good Italian mothers, she wanted to keep her little prince close to home, not lose him across the ocean. There are even Italian therapists specializing in helping men cut their umbilical links to mama, so they can have happier marriages.
For Pepino, being from a small backwater Sicilian town, it was even worse. His mother had discovered the photos Aunt Kay had sent and ripped them up, so Aunt Kay had brought new copies. I gave up trying to call him at home, where his mother lived, and called the restaurant where he worked. Forbidden love. How romantic. That’s why they were so into each other despite the obvious mismatch.
The long Lenten season had passed. Holy Week processions began. We started in the West Coast city of Trapani for their famous Good Friday celebration. Left over from the days of Spanish rule, the procession featured brotherhoods of men carrying religious floats. Other men, in robes and hoods, passed between the giant stations-of-the-cross. For Americans this had unpleasant associations with the Klan.
We capped off the day of scary hooded men with an even gloomier evening in Santa Margherita. Their Good Friday procession was more of a funeral than a celebration. Participants carried a glass tomb enclosing a ceramic Jesus. No one smiled. I didn’t understand any of it since I didn’t grow up Catholic.
The next day it poured. Aunt Kay said that every Good Saturday has bad weather. It almost made her mystical New Age mind reconsider Christianity.
Pepino had to work each day then drive half an hour to our hotel in Castelvetrano. We chose that town because it was the largest in the area and had a more posh hotel. It was still only three stars, though, so Aunt Kay didn’t find it up to her standards. She trashed it, on the last night, by pouring champagne down Pepino’s back. I tried to get off translation duty by 10:00 each night. Fortunately my language skills weren’t needed for the communicating they were doing by that hour.
Easter Sunday dawned bright in Castelvetrano. We woke up early and walked to the old town center. The crowd swelled. We were almost overcome by the smell of mothballs from all the spring suits taken out for the first time in a year. Rob was worried we might insult the town by being underdressed in our jeans and his fruit-vendor’s hat. I told him he worried too much about offending people, he should just be himself.
Our clue that festivities had begun came when a group of men jogged by pushing a cart full of angel statues. Three times they passed through the parting crowds. Then another group ran by with a Jesus statue. Another passed us from the other direction carrying Mary. Each group lifted up their saint and ran towards each other. The statues met ecstatically in the middle of the square, jumping up and down along with the angels. A band joined in this joyous celebration of resurrection. Finally Jesus and all the other figurines turned towards a small stage to hear the town priest say a few words.
We visited our friends in Santa Margherita. We feasted on salsiccias and sang songs again with Andrea’s family and our non-related Rabito friends. We saw Nella Rabito of the Menfi tile shop and met her charming fiancée, Bennedetto. They invited us for the Labor Day holiday, but we sadly declined. We had to get ready to leave Sicily in a few weeks, and we assumed this would be our final goodbye to the Belice Valley. We planned to spend our last weeks in Piazza Armerina saying goodbye to the dear friends we’d made there. I believed I’d leave the country never having found my true relatives in Santa Margherita.
Touring Santa Margherita and the Belice Valley, I was impressed by the various ways communities in the region had rebuilt after the earthquake of 1968. My own Uncle Gaspar’s hometown, Santa Ninfa, simply packed down all the rubble, along with whoever was still inside, and built a new town over it. It was the no-frills, pragmatic response my uncle might have had. Uncle Gaspar espoused other efficiency measures like shooting prisoners in the town square to deter crime.
Unlike Santa Ninfa, Santa Margherita decided to leave the ruins alone. They just built a new town right next to them. It was eerie to be walking down a living street and suddenly enter a ghost town. We peered up stairways blocked by collapsed stone walls. Were there still skeletons up there? The old cathedral’s art and architecture were still affecting, even without a roof.
The most creative approach was by the town of Gibellina, which had a modern art-loving mayor. He hired artist Alberto Burri to make something out of the destruction. Burri cleared the streets, having the rubble bulldozed into piles within the original footprints of the buildings. Concrete blocks were poured on top of the debris and painted white. The result was a maze of perfectly preserved streets, with five-foot tall concrete blocks as markers where buildings had stood. I thought it was brilliant, but it was controversial at the time. People pointed out that the money could have helped in more concrete ways than concrete art. Burri was also from the mainland, which always brought suspicion.
The new town of Gibellina Nuova was constructed, fifteen miles away, with a modern art museum at its center. The collection — which was open by appointment only — sat, as quiet as a tomb, anticipating the rare tourist.
With a few days to spare, we hired a donkey-riding guide to show us the cave paintings at Levanzo. Carol liked seeing the art work of her great-great-great-times-a-million ancestors. She joked that even these cave-dwelling great-grandparents could draw better than she could. We also paid our respects to the Greek temple of Segesta, preserved as well as those of Agrigento but tucked inland amongst deep gorges.
After a last five-star meal at the Hotel Villa Iglea in Palermo, Aunt Kay was back off to Las Vegas. After all our travel and translation, Carol and I vegged out with cable TV. When the news turned to a depressing new terrorist attack, we decided to carpe more diem and distract ourselves with other sights while Helmut’s ex was still at “my” house.
I went to the infamous Palermo catacombs, which had been too creepy for the Carol and Kay. Hundreds of mummified corpses, dressed up in their death-day finest, were seated in chairs or propped next to one another as if in a casual family photo. The saddest were the tiny infants and toddlers, in delicate fading lace or suits with short pants. It was horrifying and fascinating. Palermo’s well-to-do had paid large sums for the honor of being buried and preserved under this particular church. Luckily our tour group was large, so there was safety in numbers in this land of the dead. I bought some morbid postcards for my Victorian-loving sister and headed back to meet Carol.
There was no way Rob was dragging me to the corpse museum. I went to the puppet theater instead, and I was thrilled to find it was actually open this time.
A stout Sicilian woman blocked the door until I handed over dieci mila lira. Once I was inside, the colors screamed out to me and my anticipation kicked into overdrive. I would finally get to see a real Sicilian puppet show like I had seen in pictures. This theater had passed from generation to generation in the same Palermo family. I studied the paintings on the huge stage and the giant canvas flaps. More tourists trickled in. The startling clang of a hand-cranked piano, operated by the ticket lady, announced the start of the show. Backstage the cast stomped their feet twice to tell her when to stop so they could deliver their lines. The puppets were tall, about 2 feet and Langley – just like Giovani. Plus, they could move in all kinds of ways. Sometimes you caught flashes of the puppeteers’ hands, but it didn’t detract from the illusion.
I worried I wouldn’t like the battles and stereotypical chivalry, all that manly stuff. But the artistry saved it for me. The puppet heads were actually designed to split open and fall off! There was lots of noise and excitement as Ruggero, the hero, slew the dragon and even more when he killed the villain. A winged devil swooped down to take the hapless evil-doer’s body away.
After all this exertion, Ruggero fell asleep snoring. Suspenseful music started to build, and my heart leapt as a second villain crept across stage and killed him! Such Sicilian fatalism. No good deed goes unpunished. Angels flew down to take poor Ruggero away. A smaller puppet came out to wrap up the show and thank us for coming. He bent over to present us his backside. Upon it, a sign read “fine.” The End.
It was one of the best shows I’d seen in my life. Rob was waiting at the door when I emerged. I was heartbroken that he had missed the performance, and I breathlessly told him all about it. I succeeded in making him regret that, instead of getting such a lively performance, he’d seen a bunch of dead people.
I couldn’t wait to go home to Germanville. I imagined our last few weeks would be perfect, with goodwill replacing all the drama of previous months. On the way we stopped at Cefalu, whose beauty everyone had praised. We stayed with another friend of Rob’s from the German work camp. Her mother normally rented out the upstairs apartment, but we got it for free. It was a wonderful few days of lounging around, looking out over the calm sea. We never saw the clouds brewing for the coming storm.
Cefalu was a beautiful interlude before the tempest. It was Aliester Crowley’s adopted home until he and his Tarot cards were kicked out by Mussolini. I’d met Daniela the summer before, at the German volunteer camp, and she’d helped me practice Italian. She was thin and frenetic, with frizzy red hair that seemed electrified by her energy. She had a pet chick that was just as adorable and lively as she was. It peeped and hopped all over the house, and we tried not to step on it. I didn’t mind too much when it jumped on the kitchen table to poop on me as we ate.
Daniela took us to party with her friends in town, and her mom showed us their orchards where we picked and feasted on blood oranges. After this pleasantness, we headed back for what awaited us in Piazza.
At the beginning of our trip, after unsuccessfully trying to talk to Helmut, I’d left a few days ahead of Carol. At the airport, before I caught my flight, I called Giovanni’s. I hoped to catch Carol and clear up some details about what she should discuss with Helmut. I also wanted to clarify what she should clean to ensure that we’d leave the place in good condition for Helmut’s ex-wife. I had to leave a message with Giovanni. Through a series of mistranslations, miscommunications, and missed opportunities, Carol ended up leaving a note for his ex-wife. It was the fuse for a great explosion.
Chapter 15 – You Can Never Go Back Home
There is something called collective grief.
As a child, I didn’t even know my dad’s family was Jewish. It was kept hidden, like the rest of their past. My grandfather was born near Minsk in the Ukraine, and moved to New York, around 1900, at age five. His and my grandmother’s families must have been escaping pogroms. All they would tell me is that the past doesn’t matter. But does it?
We didn’t have any direct relatives left in Europe during World War II. But my Aunt Peggy married a man named Lou. We were told never to ask Uncle Lou about the number etched into his arm. Never ask about his wife and children who were killed in Auschwitz. But we knew. We knew there must have been unimaginable pain.
I’d always thought of him when I heard about the Holocaust in school and when Rob and I went to see Schindler’s List before we left for Italy. I was so furious after that movie that I couldn’t talk. Rob didn’t understand. Was it collective grief?
We arrived home late on Sunday night, and Giovanni was nowhere to be found. Our bags were heavy, so we rang up one of Giovanni’s brothers to ask for a place to store them while we hiked home. It was a moonless night, and our flashlight died on us. The wind was howling and spooky. Clouds threatened. Was it an omen telling us not to return?
We didn’t make it back. It was too dark, clouds loomed ominously, and the wind was too strong. We heeded the warning and found shelter. We pounded on Artilio’s metal door.
Rubbing his eyes, he said sure, it was fine to sleep there. In fact, he insisted that we stay there for the rest of our time in Piazza. Did he know something? Or was this his usual desperate plea for company?
In the morning he served us breakfast, chicken and pasta. He only knew or cared how to cook two things: his summer and winter meal. We continued to Girasol. Veronika seemed distant. Mick didn’t care to hear all our stories about his home country, and he showed no interest in the things we’d gotten him. That seemed even stranger.
Finally we made it to Rob’s cabin. Just as we’d feared, it was empty. The food, the radio, and even the pillows and blankets were gone.
Hilda walked by. She didn’t greet me at all, but she gave Rob a hug “hello.” I asked her if we could catch a ride, to get our stuff, when she went to get her kids from school. She shook her finger and said no. A friend was picking up the kids. I shrugged and told Rob I’d walk back and see what I could carry from town.
I went to Giovanni’s. When I rang up he said, “Come on up, Scemmo.”
I asked why he was calling me the “shamed one” or stupid one.
“Oh, just for fun.”
He called his brother at work so I could get my stuff. We waited and waited. He didn’t show. For fun, we tried to break into his apartment. No luck. The door wouldn’t budge.
Giovanni called his brother again and was told he had to make a delivery to another town and wouldn’t be back until 8:30. I had to wait for Mick, too. He’d promised me a ride home since he wanted his books and baked beans from the U.K. Apparently he had worked up some interest in our trip after all.
I took advantage of my time there and had a shower. When I came out, Giovanni was up to his old tricks. He was a little less suave, though. He just said, “Let’s fuck.” I shouldn’t have taught him English words like that.
After we were done, I put away the unused condoms. He asked to borrow one again.
“No, they are my last ones.”
I couldn’t believe he was calling me that.
“Why would you say that?”
“A little bird told me a story. It said that you asked the woman who owns the house for money for using the bombola. Is that true?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“That wasn’t very nice. It is her house.”
I hadn’t thought about it. “Rob was the one worried about it!” I explained. “He paid for the bombola and didn’t get chance to talk to her husband about it.”
“You shouldn’t have done it.”
“You’re right. It was rude. But how did you hear?”
“In a bar.”
“It’s one thing for me to make a mistake, but another for people to talk about it.”
I trailed off. I was choking with tears. Luckily, the phone rang, and Giovanni got up to answer it. Tears rolled down my face onto his pillow. I couldn’t believe it. I felt horrible. It was obnoxious of us to ask for money and worry about the food and wood when it was her house. But why did he call me Jew? Were the Germans calling me that? How could they? They had killed over 6 million of us. Did they still hate us? Did my mistake have to be blamed on half of my ethnicity? Besides, it was Rob who’d been worried about the stuff. I’d just passed along the message. Now everyone was going to remember me for this and for being accused of robbing Artilio. Great. The whole year came down to these horrible events.
And why did Giovanni want to fuck me? Me, such a reprehensible stingy person? Was I just a subhuman to be used? I was feeling truly fucked.
The doorbell rang, and Giovanni got up. I wiped away my tears and met Mick at the door.
“I’m so stoned,” was his greeting.
Great, he was my ride home.
“Mick,” I said with as much composure as possible, “Is it true that everyone is talking about this bombola thing?”
“Yeah, but it’s more of a joke. That was really Jewish of you though. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen people kicked out, but it’s not that serious.”
There was that word again: Jewish. It went with stingy. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Everyone must be saying that. After I had made a Rosh Hashanah dinner for everyone and shared the Jewish side of myself with them all. I was proud even though I knew so little about the faith and even less the culture. I’d come came to find my Italian roots, and I was being burned for my Jewish ones. I snuck into the bathroom and sobbed while Mick and Giovanni argued politics, oblivious to my meltdown.
Was being Jewish part of the joke Mick mentioned? It was terrifying to think of Germans making jokes at the expense of Jews. And, ironically, it had been Rob’s idea to ask about money for the gas and wood – he was of German descent! Why was I the one being punished? Hilda had hugged him, and she obviously blamed me.
All I could think about was Uncle Lou and what the Germans had done to him and his family. My collective wounds were cut open. I felt God had abandoned me. Why was this happening? Why now, when I was about to leave Sicily with wonderful memories? Why now, on the last night of Passover?
It was also the 50th anniversary of Italy’s freedom from fascism and German occupation. The Americans had saved them. Who would save me from the latest German attack?
I felt trapped. I wanted to leave but had nowhere to go. Giovanni and Mick were blocking the phone. I couldn’t talk to them about it. They wouldn’t understand, and they didn’t seem to care. I slipped out of the bathroom and out of the apartment without them noticing. I visited Giovanni’s other brother, Fabio.
“Ciao, Fabio. Do you have a key to your brother Aldo’s apartment?”
“No, but I could call him.”
“Thank you. My stuff is in there.”
“He told me about that. Sit down. I’ll call.”
I was left alone while he made the call. My thoughts and tears came back. Fabio brought me the phone, but I couldn’t talk. He was left holding the phone, confused.
“I don’t know,” he told his brother. “She can’t talk. She’s crying.”
He handed me some paper towels. This was yet another sparse bachelor apartment.
“Try, Carol, try.”
He handed me the phone.
“Carol, piccola, what’s wrong?”
“It’s something horrible. It’s not you. It’s racism. Some people said some horrible things.”
“Was it here in Piazza?”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. Everyone is ignorant here.”
I managed a laugh. “It was foreigners. Hippies. Germans.”
“Ah, Yes, the Germans. Don’t worry. They were stupid. Don’t worry about it.”
Aldo told me Fabio could drive to work and get his key. Then we hung up.
“Are you okay?” Fabio asked.
“Was it Giovanni? Mick?”
“No, they just told me about it.”
“I’ll be right back. You just sit here. Is the T.V. too loud?”
“No, it’s fine. Thanks.” I laughed between my sobs. He was
being so sweet. Fabio walked out but left the door open. I heard someone come in. I thought it was Fabio returning, but it was Mick.
“Whoa. You are in crisis!” he said.
I cried some more.
“I told you, don’t worry about it. Just throw a festa,” Fabio said.
“I feel awful, but I don’t know who to apologize to.” I said. “So many people know about it, and everyone is joking about me being Jewish.”
“No, no, no. It’s gone too far. Stop thinking like that. That’s not true,” Mick said.
I sobbed some more.
“I’d hug you but I’m not that type,” Mick said. That made me laugh. It was so true. He also said he wouldn’t tell anyone about my big breakdown here. That’s where the truth stopped.
Fabio came back with the key. I went into Aldo’s and found the books and beans for Mick. He was so thankful that he did give me a hug.
“I’ve asked so many people to get me this stuff, and no one ever has. You are the first.”
Maybe I wasn’t so self-centered and greedy after all. Mick gave me the promised ride home, and I expected to find Rob as upset as I was. Instead, I found him blissfully ignorant. He had visited everyone in Germanville. They had all welcomed him back warmly and hadn’t mentioned a word about it. They all blamed me and me alone – the Jew. It didn’t occur to them that Rob was the one who bought the bombola and chopped the wood, and that they were mostly his concern.
When I told Rob everything our neighbors hadn’t deemed worthy of mentioning, he hugged me. He didn’t seem to understand the crisis going on inside me. I cried myself to sleep. I couldn’t sleep well, and I woke up crying.
I tried to write in my diary to make myself feel better. All I could write was “Help,” not directed to anyone in particular. Not even God. But again, I didn’t have many options. I put on my jacket and walked out the door. Rob stopped me fearfully, “Are you coming back?”
“Yes,” I assured him. Had he put me on suicide watch?
Walking past the houses in Valle Perfetta made me sick. Images of shaved heads on starving bodies filled my mind. I had never experienced overt racism before. I’d never known how awful it felt. All I could see were their past crimes.
I kept walking and enjoyed hearing the Sicilian shepherd and his wife yelling at each other, like they always did. Hearing Sicilian was comforting. German made me want to vomit. It was no wonder Israeli Kibbutz won’t allow German-speaking volunteers. There are memories held in languages.
I turned to a rock for comfort, sitting down to cry. I gave God one last chance. I prayed. Then I lay down in the grass and tried to sleep it all away. I jealously saw a hawk pass over me and sweep across the valley. Why couldn’t I just fly away? I wanted to escape.
When we returned to Piazza after our trip to Ireland, we found everyone acting weird. The Germans in Valle Perfetta wouldn’t look me in the eye. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and no one offered to explain. Helmut did grumble something about how the sheets we left on the bed were “sporchissimo,” disgusting. That was embarrassing. I’d thought Carol would change them. Oh well.
When Carol returned, in tears, from Giovanni’s and clued me in, I was horrified. Carol’s note to Helmut’s ex-wife had come across as selfish, rude, and ungrateful. She had suggested that Helmut’s ex-wife leave us ten or fifteen thousand lira for using the gas in our bombola, after we had been allowed to stay there free for half a year. She also mentioned that if they used our borrowed radio, they needed to be careful not to touch the loose wires in the back or they might get a shock. Carol intended this as a helpful warning, but it was taken as “And don’t touch our radio!” She further insulted the woman by saying that she should feel free to use whatever produce was left in the storage trunk. Hilda later said it was “a bunch of rotten, sprouting potatoes!” We also had a bottle of soy sauce I hadn’t returned to Lea. It was a social disaster.
After Giovanni had called Carol a stingy Hebrew, Mick fanned the flames by joking about her Jewishness. I recalled a party at Hilda’s where Fier had proudly made his coin-sized pancakes for everyone. Mick joked that they were “Jewish” pancakes because of their stingy size. Fier smiled enigmatically. Carol pointed out that it was yet another insult to think that all Jews were alike, that if you could joke with one, it was O.K. with any Jewish person.
I didn’t know what we should do. The Valle Perfetta community had always seemed hypercritical in its expectations, and this faux pas seemed almost insurmountable. Carol wanted to give up and never see them again — if they felt the same way about Jews that Mick and Giovanni did, given that they were German, it was unforgivable. I made the rounds of the neighbors, alone, to get a better understanding of what had happened and see what could be done.
Veronika frowned as she said ciao. She launched into me about the stupid note Carol had left. Being German, she didn’t like Carol crying anti-Semitism. She also guilt-tripped me about becoming a part of the community and carelessly disappearing to travel for so long. She half-joked that her cats were having to babysit each other these days. Apparently I had been delinquent in my child and pet care services.
Helmut reamed me out the worst. I explained that I’d only meant his ex might consider hooking up a new bombola if necessary, since it was hard for me to carry from town. I didn’t want her to leave us money for it. But he wasn’t having it. I tried to ask if we could still stay, and he just shrugged disgustedly and said “Fai come tu vuoi,” do what you want. I headed to Hilda’s.
I tried to apologize and explain the situation to her too, but the result wasn’t much better. I told her how hurt Carol was that the Germans here had started the anti-Jewish comments we’d heard from Giovanni and Mick. Her eyes widened with shock, and she yelled, “WIR SIND NICHT FASCISTEN!!” (We are not fascists!) I backed out as gracefully as I could, relieved that Kai wasn’t there to attack me too.
I felt more tranquilo after my prayer walk, but as I headed back to Germanville, my mood sank. I began to cry again. I saw Hilda and Kai near the path, so gave them a wide berth, taking another path. When I got back, I asked Rob if there were any neighbors around. He said no. I collapsed on the bed, bawling.
“I can’t stand it here anymore. They make me want to puke!”
Rob held me and listened. After a while I calmed down. Rob left, promising to talk to the neighbors, and it seemed like he was gone forever. My thoughts kept racing. Rob came back and told me about being bawled out. He had tried to explain our perspective, and at least Hilda seemed to cut him some slack. She said maybe we were just young and stupid.
Hilda seemed truly shocked by the allegations of racism. She claimed, given their history, they would never say that. She also told Rob she had heard about my breakdown at Giovani’s from Veronika. So much for Mick’s vow of silence. Why hadn’t anyone told Rob? Or talked to me? Especially now that they knew I had heard about it and perceived it as anti-Semitism?
As Rob recounted all this, my blood started boiling. Why should I kiss their feet? The day we had returned, they’d just smiled coldly without telling me they were snickering behind my back. They should’ve known that if you limit your communication with someone to rumors, bad things happen. My anger reverted to tears. Why did I always have to cry when I got mad?
My fury grew again upon learning that Helmut had wanted to kick us out long ago. We were both shocked at this news from Hilda. Was it over the stupid misunderstanding about the dresser? Helmut had barely mentioned to Rob that we should put the dresser back. He was actually thinking of booting us out over it? I couldn’t believe these people were so passive aggressive. Maybe that was the only option left to Germans, since they had abused their privilege of being aggressive-aggressive. We thought Helmut had taken the pillows and blankets to wash for us, but apparently he didn’t intend to bring them back.
It seemed useless for Rob to talk to Helmut. Helmut had joked that Rob was paranoid whenever he apologetically asked to borrow a tool or something. Now we knew Rob wasn’t the crazy one after all. We were getting burned for things we had borrowed or used.
In the morning, I raced out of Valle Perfetta. I felt like that hawk I’d envied – I was escaping. I wasn’t stopping in Piazza Armerina. Rob and I planned to meet that night, across the island in my family province of Agrigento. We’d take them up on their warm offer of a Labor Day picnic after all. Labor Day was the first of May – this is how a good socialist country celebrates May Day.
Rob spread the word that we were going to let things cool down and figure out how to proceed. At that point I didn’t give a damn about saying polite goodbyes to anyone.
I did slip into Ulla’s store before hopping on the bus. I almost cried with relief to finally find someone who understood and sympathized. Ulla still was a true friend. It didn’t hurt that she already hated Helmut for his plots against her jewelry business. It wasn’t just us. That Toilet Guy had a past.
The great thing about being a traveler is you can get the hell out of town. I didn’t have to stay and throw an ass-kissing festa. Fuck Germanville. I checked into our favorite cheap hotel in Agrigento and looked for a movie theater where I could escape from reality even further. That part didn’t quite work out, since only Outbreak was playing. All the disease and death just reminded me of the Holocaust. Next time I’d stick to a comedy, or a book.
Leaving the theater was worse – the streets were totally empty except for a few pockets of men who watched me. I walked quickly, my heart pounding. Everything in the past few days had made me paranoid. Some men even called out to me, which scared me more.
Finally, I got to the hotel, and Rob was there; he was on time for once. I fell into his arms and breathed a sigh of relief.
Rob was in a good mood despite our neighbors and so-called friends tearing him “four new assholes.” Helmut and Lea had unloaded their whole list of grievances on him when he went to try to make things right. Rob took the whole ridiculous affair in stride, but I started shaking uncontrollably as we talked about it. I cried myself to sleep and woke up still upset. Would I ever get over this trauma?