Chapter 7 – The Dead Rise Again
It’s always been hard to find work in Sicily. So many Sicilians have emigrated that we heard accents from Australia, England, South America, and anywhere else from which some families had returned after the great emigration of the 1950’s. My family had left in the previous wave, in the late 1880s, and none had returned.
But they weren’t as destitute as I thought. Papa Pete came for adventure and to run away from a lustful teacher. Wouldn’t that be every student’s dream, to sail away from school? Catarina and her mother didn’t seem poor either. Their grandfather owned a match factory and had enough money to drive his own stagecoach.
Papa Nick had another reason, besides money, to go to the US. It was rabbits. He and his brother, Uncle Andrew, had a store in Sicily, but they kept closing it to spend afternoons hunting the long-eared delicacy. In Brooklyn, he wouldn’t get so distracted from his barbershop business unless he wanted to hunt city rats.
I got a call from Rob, using a phone at his neighbor’s house. He couldn’t stand staying at Girasol anymore. Mick and Veronika had returned from their most recent travels, and things had gotten unpleasant. He had seen them physically fight, and Mick had kicked a kitten. Mick was not gaining any points with me, either. Deserting Veronika. Breaking my tomato strainer. Always running around like he was the one on fire instead of the sticks he juggled. Now Rob seemed to be witnessing spousal abuse. In my eyes he was lower than the swarms of unhousebroken cats.
After the move, Rob disappeared again for weeks. I relaxed at Ulla’s, following my new fall routine and trying not to worry too much. Almost every night, instead of making sweet love with Giovanni, I would make sweet treats with four-year-old Emiliano. He loved helping knead the dough for my American cookie recipes. I liked giving the only gift I could, food they didn’t have in Italy. Fortunately, everyone liked them. They were a far cry from Italian cookies, which were rather dry, semi-sweet and biscuit-like, more like their name sounded – biscotti.
Thursday market rolled around once again, and I headed to Bar Charlotte. I was getting to know Jean better, and I was considering whether I thought he was cute and if I could date a German, rather than my preferred Italians. His braiding business was doing well, and he planned to go to Palermo for the big All Saint’s Day market. In Sicily, this holiday is bigger than Christmas, and it’s the time when children get their gifts. Even the small Piazza market was full of cheap plastic toys. I wanted to see the famous marzipan sculptures in Palermo. They are the reward for good children who remember the dead by leaving something in their shoes and putting them on the doorstep for the spirits to pick up as they drift by on November 1st. I asked Jean if I could tag along for a few days.
As we chatted, a mountain man walked in. He looked like a Unabomber from the Montana Rockies, with blond, matted hair, a big scruffy beard, and dirty clothes. It was Rob. I had really abandoned him in the wilderness. What had I done?
I brought him home to Ulla’s where he spent the night and had a shower. Unfortunately Ulla’s place didn’t have hot water in the basement. It’s a myth that cold showers cool down your libido down; I was hot to trot the whole time I was taking unheated showers in Sicily. But at the moment, I was still hot for Giovanni.
Poor Rob. Just as we Americans think Italians are dreamily dark and handsome, Sicilian girls wanted a blond, beautiful American man. But when they saw Rob, they were turned off. His hair was too long. Compared to Italian men, he lacked style. If they’d heard of grunge, they had no interest in it. It was easier being an American woman, in Sicily, than being a man. Especially for a shy, considerate guy like Rob.
What a relief to be invited to Carol’s for a bath and a soft bed. Even if it was a Platonic sleepover.
Ulla was a tall Dane, and Carlo was a short Roman. They enjoyed telling us the story of their romance, when Carlo met her on his trip around the world. She had been the most exquisite woman he had ever seen, and he couldn’t leave her. He already had tickets for America, though, and couldn’t stay. So in typical Italian fashion, he put on the hard sell. He talked her into dropping everything and accompanying him on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Fate had brought them together. She joined him on the trip, and in life. They settled down in Sicily to open their jewelry shop and raise their kids.
Soon after my escape to Valle Perfetta, I began to rely on Hilda for rides to town and back. I made the usual rounds of stores, bars, and the post office and searched for Carol at Ulla’s shop or Giovanni’s. Hilda helped me carry my bags of supplies all the way to my house afterwards. I was embarrassed, because it was hardly up to German standards of organization and cleanliness yet. I hiked over to Girasol to grab some stuff I’d forgotten. Mick and Veronika were in town, but Annabella was there, sick from some “almost” wine they had provided the night before. She said there was a lot of work to do in the house and garden. I took the hint and changed my plans to stay and help. I cleaned the kitchen.
Mick and Veronika returned, after making calls in town, to plan a juggling trip to Cefalu, near Palermo. They made some delicious cream sauce dumplings and broccoli. I dug into it, but I was afraid Mick didn’t like the fact that I was still eating their food. But hell, I had just cleaned their kitchen. I stayed until dark, but didn’t want to press my luck and ask to spend the night. I struggled over the hill with awkward armfuls of supplies and a borrowed guitar. Attila the Mutt was so ferocious as I crested the ridge to Valle Perfetta that I had to backtrack, taking a long alternate route.
Along the road an old French car puttered by, then ground into reverse and whined back toward me. The driver was Hannah, an attractive 40-something British woman who lived up the hill with her Italian husband, Dino. Dino was a huge man, over six feet tall and built like an American football player. He had a big heart to go along with his huge frame. I would have thought he would fit perfectly in the Italian army or marines, but he had been in the air force. He was on disability retirement now due to a liver ailment. Hannah gave me a ride to Helmut’s, and I fumbled along the unlit path until I reached home.
I spent most of the afternoon gathering and cutting wood. I made a lunch of bread, cheese, fruit, and tomatoes. Until I figured out how to get a bombola, cooking on the wood stove was much too complicated. I also went to get drinking water from the spring by Helmut’s house. The water that came from the holding tank to my house was for washing. It wasn’t as fresh, and I’d actually noticed tiny shrimp-like larvae swimming in it. Maybe mosquitoes, but fortunately, I hadn’t noticed any biting me. Ah well. The same creatures came out of the water hose at Girasol. Veronika and Annabella had caught me putting chlorine purification drops in my water bottle and lectured me about putting poison in my water. I was relieved that Helmut wasn’t home, so I could stock up on sea monkey-free water in peace.
I went back and cleaned my lower house. It was empty except for some dressers, plastic tubs of jewelry, and metal-working supplies. It had better light than my main house, so I figured I’d use it as a studio. How perfectly idyllic! I painted there a while and felt great
At sunset I felt the need for companionship, so I dropped in at Hilda and Kai’s. I was curious to ask them what mountains were in the distance that looked so fantastic in the reddening light. Kai said they were the hilltop cities of San Giuliano and Caltanissetta. I made a mental note to visit those ancient and magical places.
Back at home, I started a fire in the stove and put on some tea. I read, wrote letters, and caught up in my diary. It was a lovely end to the day. I had to evict a large hairy wolf spider from the indoor woodpile next to my stove, but that was all right. Only when I looked at myself in the reflection of the glass door, and thought I looked fat despite knowing that I’d lost weight, did I worry that I was still fundamentally crazy.
The next day, when I saw Hilda and Lea hiking around, gathering nuts instead of taking the kids to school, I realized it was Saturday. Hilda waved to me and smiled, which surprised me since I’d assumed she was mad at me for some unknown infraction. I tormented myself deciding whether to volunteer to help. Finally I did, but Hilda said no thanks. I was left to myself, just as I’d wanted. I repeated my developing routine: eating bread, cutting wood, filling my water jugs, writing, and making art. But I wanted to see Carol and have some hot food.
The day before Halloween, my favorite holiday, had arrived. Jean, the youngest, newest German in town had a green and white true hippie VW van. He’d said I could tag along on his trip to Palermo for the All Saint’s Day festival. I had heard about the festivities and didn’t want to miss a second of them. I ran into Marlies and Felippe in town, and they told me the whole thing would start on October 31st, not the first or second of November as we had thought. How would I get in touch with Jean to tell him we needed to go earlier? He was staying at a country house without a phone. A local guy had loaned him the house. However, he’d realized Jean’s presence was cramping his style, leaving him with no place for his extramarital affairs, and he was urging Jean to move out. The owners of Bar Charlotte said the guy who owned the house came in every night and should be able to tell me where to find Jean. So I waited, and waited, and waited.
I was nervous at first – what if I didn’t find him? What if we missed all the festivities? What if, what if, what if? My mind was out of control again. I managed to relax by listening to a remix of “Summer Nights” from Grease thumping through the speakers at the bar. I took out my English language novel, Beloved, breathed deeply, and escaped into the world of literature.
Evening turned to night, and there was still no sign of Jean or his landlord. Worry was clamoring for my attention again. I tried to keep reading, but instead I caught myself looking around. I had never really stayed at Bar Charlotte past the evening passagiato, walk time. Now, as I glanced around, I noticed it wasn’t the hangout of hippies and people getting coffee or sandwiches. It had transformed into a true bar, with young people drinking, playing video games, and looking cool. A young man next to me smiled. I returned the favor. He motioned to the sunflower seeds he was eating and offered me some. I opened my hands for the gift.
I must have said “grazie,” or something, with my clunky American accent, because the first thing he asked was,
“Where are you from?”
“I’m not from around here either.”
“But your Italian is so good.”
He laughed. “I’m from Sardinia.”
I felt like an idiot, but I was smart enough to know that Sardenia is another big Italian island, northwest of Sicily. But it dawned on me that was all I knew. Although I’d heard of Sicily all my life, I’d never really heard of Sardinia.
“So, what are you doing here?”
“Me? I’m in the military and they’ve posted me here. Why are you here?”
”My family was from Sicily. I want to learn all about Italy.”
”I’ll help you. You know what we do best?
I’d fallen into that one.
“I know, know. Il seso e bello.” The Italian mantra had already been burned into my memory.
“Oh, so you know about us in Italy?”
”Of course. All of you guys are the same.”
“No, I’m from Sardinia.”
I had to admit he was cute. Such long black eyelashes over his beautiful brown eyes. He was young– barely 23 — a few years younger than I was. His name was Christian, but he didn’t act like one.
I knew what he wanted, since had he started the sex talk, saying the same thing I’d heard for months” “sex is beautiful.” That you can like someone and not love them. Blah, blah, blah. It seemed to be the Italian national anthem. So I knew his invitation to go to another side of the bar wasn’t purely innocent, but I went. We played video games, and he put his arm around me and occasionally touched my hand. Once he asked for a kiss, but I said I couldn’t kiss him in front of everyone. I was also afraid Jean would walk in and I wouldn’t see him with my face stuck to this guy. And what if Jean came in and saw me kissing some stranger? My reputation in town was already questionable.
The Sardinian suggested a walk instead. I have no idea why I agreed to go. How could I catch up with Jean if I left the establishment altogether? We ended up in the plaza outside Giovanni’s apartment. The light was on, and I wondered what Giovanni was doing upstairs as I let Christian kiss me. It didn’t last long. I still felt some sense of belonging to Giovanni, with whom I had cheated on my Rob. Guilt grabbed me again. I didn’t want Giovanni to see us, even if he did flaunt his other lovers around me. I couldn’t do unto others as he had done to me.
Christian was hurt. I tried to convince him that yes, I did like him, but we had to walk back. Tonight was not the night. I think I damaged his ego more than his feelings.
As the night went on and Jean still didn’t show up, I finally said goodbye to Christian, saying I had to find a safe way home. Christian said we’d see each other again. I knew we never would.
I rang Giovanni’s doorbell hoping he was alone. He met me at the street entrance and walked me up the steps, so I thought it was safe. But he was with another woman, Annabella. Now that Mick had scared her away from Girasol, as he’d done to Rob, she was crashing at Giovanni’s place while she looked for somewhere permanent to stay.
My hero, Giovanni, drove me to look for Jean. We found the isolated country house and roused the elusive German hippie. He offered us tea. He had an ulcer and couldn’t stomach coffee.
We all chatted for a while. Jean agreed we could leave the next evening so we wouldn’t miss a bit of the festivities. I didn’t want to miss a moment of Sicilian culture, and he wanted to earn as much money as possible making braids.
As we drove back towards Piazza, I saw the time on the car radio. It was midnight. I bid Giovanni a “Happy Halloween.” I explained that it was my favorite holiday. With his usual sly smile, he suggested we make it even more enjoyable.
We drove around until we found an isolated road. It was actually near Ulla’s house and above the Roman mosaics, but the tourist attraction was closed for the night. We parked and he tilted my seat back; I laughed. He took his pants off. Then I leaned back in my seat, and he moved on top of me. As he assumed the position, he mentioned that he’d found a woman I could sleep with for a ménage-a-trois. It had been a pet project of his since learning I was bi. Not that he hadn’t had one before, of course.
I was turned on by the thought, and by this friendly gesture. He always thought of ways to help me and others! But I didn’t want to talk about it at that moment. I wanted to concentrate on watching him, and the tree outside casting ghostly shadows on the car. What a great way to start Halloween! Ah, Sicilia. My destiny here must be to learn about sex. And I’m liking it.
He drove me to Ulla’s afterwards, and he asked if I was happy there. I told him it was exactly what I wanted and thanked him again for another gracious thing he had done for me. He was definitely a giver. I slipped inside the house and crawled around the dark basement. I found my bed cozy and warm thanks to the Danish bed-warming contraption Ulla had put out for me. I realized what I was for Halloween that year. Getting cozy with two different men in one night and having tea with a third. My costume was “slut.” But I didn’t mind. New country. New identity.
My mom said when her mother and aunts were children, every All Soul’s Day they would put their shoes out for the dead who were walking by. In the morning they found candy in their shoes, plus a persimmon for each of them. As far back as she could remember, my mom saw Aunt Jo buying a persimmon each November 1st.
The next day Ulla drove me into town. She asked me why I’d gotten in so late. Even with my key, they’d heard me sneak in. I explained that it was Halloween and Giovanni had a treat for me. She just laughed, like she always did, at my youthful adventures.
I met Jean at Bar Charlotte. We grabbed sandwiches before heading out for Palermo. As we ate, we got another Halloween treat. Mick trudged in; his shoulders slouched, clutching a piece of paper. It was a notice from the government of Italy — he was being deported. Italian bureaucrats may be inefficient, but they know an unwanted immigrant when they see one. I pretended to be shocked and saddened.
Giovanni popped into the bar just as we were leaving. Everyone wished us a fun trip. I hugged Giovanni and whispered in his ear that I had just started my period, so his American dream baby would have to wait. I also told him I was going to start taking the pill. The baby question had been decided by both me and the universe – no.
We headed out of town in Jean’s mean green driving machine. I immediately fell in love with it. I dreamed of owning a van and driving all over the United States. Yet like every German I’ve ever met, Jean complained that his Volkswagen was crap. How could a car that we found so quaint be so hated in its own country? It must be the exotic factor – it’s novel to us, whereas the Germans see all the company’s problems first hand. It’s kind of like the Italians, hosts to the Vatican, and their disillusionment with Catholicism.
We swung by and plucked Rob out of his cabin, house, lodging, or whatever you wanted to call the place. I was shocked to find it so dirty and cold and guilt welled up, but fortunately there wasn’t time to dwell on his dwelling. I hadn’t been able to call him, so I had to make him decide right then and there – do you want to come to Palermo? He hated not being able to agonize over a decision, but — probably to get out of cleaning up his place — he said yes.
On the road I tried to take a nap after my late night activities, but it was difficult because I kept thinking of sex. Sicily brought out the horniness in me. It must be the hot lava surging and tectonic plates grinding, or that mythic Greek monster shaking things up down below. I wondered if I’d be able to manage a menage a trois with Jean and Rob. However, as we got closer to Palermo, the traffic picked up and Jean started throwing German curse words around, threatening my romantic inclinations toward him.
We got lost trying to find the Piazza Massimo, where the market was held. I leaned out the window and asked directions. The Palermitanos would give me a few streets in the general direction, then pass the buck, telling me to ask someone else for the rest of the directions! I wonder if, these days, Italian GPS systems give you part of the directions then tell you to ask another algorithm.
“Turn left at the next intersection. Ask the first pedestrian for guidance, per favore.”
It was dark by the time we parked the van in front of an old theater. We walked across the street and continued through the lights of the market. Crowds swarmed to buy toys. There must have been a lot of good children this year. We indulged in marzipan shaped like orange slices and admired the almond-dough doll figurines. There were plenty of other traditional Sicilian candies and Palermitano pizzas to try as well. I bought a few Christmas gifts, and my money dwindled far too fast.
Jean hurried us through the holiday market. Rob and I tried to linger like tourists, but his German efficiency was at its peak. He must have been scoping out the market for business purposes. After walking through the whole place, we found ourselves in front of a Chinese restaurant. Rob offered to buy us all a dinner that, for him and me, was a taste of home. Jean spaced out when Rob and I spoke our language, since he knew more Italian than English. But we did manage to learn more about this friendly German in between bites of egg rolls. I was horrified to find out he wasn’t a hippie free spirit in a ‘60s van. He was actually more of a homeless boy. He had been running away from his parents for a year, and he kept finding ways to make a living as he moved farther and farther from his oppressive home.
My attraction to him was almost over, and by the time we settled into the van to sleep, it was completely dead. The van only had one pull-out bed, smashed between the seats and the kitchen sink. I slept in the middle, naturally. The menage a trois idea fled from my mind entirely as we all collapsed, exhausted. Jean snored, and Rob polluted the air all night.
The final insult to the allure of being with two men in a van occurred when I woke up having to go to the bathroom. There was none in the van, and we had parked in the middle of the city. Luckily no one was around, so I just peed on the street. Urine tends to splash a lot when it hits pavement. I got back to sleep, but I woke up feeling dirty and sticky and wondering where I could at least brush my teeth.
Jean headed to work on his braiding business. Rob and I decided to get lost in Palermo. We found a bar with a bathroom, but I still felt gross. We wandered to the archaeological museum where Rob was in heaven, using the science side of his brain. I tried to feel connected to my ancient ancestors.
We found a movie theater showing the Italian classic La Dulce Vita. The film, which portrayed an Italian wife cheating on her husband, didn’t appeal to me as much as I might have expected. Is that all the Italians do – cheat? It was nice to watch an Italian classic in Italy, but I didn’t see the orgy scene my mom claimed was in it. The party scene? That’s no orgy. At least not by modern day Rated R standards.
We stumbled upon a Tunisian restaurant and loved sitting on the floor and being surprised by dish after dish. The waiters brought us exotic tastes of couscous and vegetables and even sweets. We felt like the prince and princess in Aladdin. This was the traveling life I had imagined for Rob and me.
By the time we got back to the market, we could barely walk because it was so crowded. I got claustrophobic and sent Rob to find Jean and get the key to the van. I was cold, but I found a man to talk to, and he kindly lent me his jacket. I should have known it came with a price. I kept trying to ask him about his life as a Moroccan immigrant in Sicily, but he kept interrupting my attempts at intellectual conversation by reminding me that I was a bella regazza. Was everyone on this island horny?
I was. Rob returned with the key, and we got cozy and warm in the van’s bed. We made out seriously for the first time in forever, and I wanted to have sex right there in the middle of Palermo. Unfortunately my messy menstruation stopped us. The moment was ruined by nature, not by any bad choice of mine, but it was still another big regret in my sex tour of Sicily.
Jean snuck in next to me in the middle of the night, and I was so tired that the farting and snoring didn’t bother me. In the morning Jean told us the Moroccan immigrants had fought at the market and had started shooting at each other. Rob and I just nodded and headed off to the art museum. This was Sicily, where weird stuff happened all the time. Stories of shootings didn’t really faze us anymore. We never learned much about the Mafia, but we knew enough not to ask and to just let it go.
The modern art museum seemed to embrace the Sicilians’ pessimistic view of the world – it was all dull gray and brown colors. One brown marble statue of a willowy, starving man stabbing another who lays victim at his feet I guessed portrayed a Greek myth made in the Sicilian hopeless point of view. Plus, they called it a “modern” art museum, but most of the work was almost two centuries old. Rob liked it though, it was quite a contrast to his bright pop-style art, and he was inspired to try this somber Sicilian approach.
We sheltered in a hotel lobby, where we had gone to drink glass after glass of free water. Between the market, museums, restaurants, and movie, I had spent way too much cash. We decided it was time to return home to Piazza Armerina.
Jean drove us back and let me put in the country music tape Nikki had given me. The whole ride felt like a road trip back in the States, watching the fields and mountains fly by, feeling wind on my face. I was thankful to be in beautiful Sicily though, seeing the old stone houses and gnarled olive trees. The best of both worlds. I was at peace and happy. Jean drove both of us to our Sicilian homes on the opposite sides of town.
Although I was exhausted, I filled in Carlo and Ulla on all the details, and I put in some time with the kids. Then I bathed away all the Palermo dirt, blood, and piss.
I had been dying to get away from the countryside, so I was delighted when Carol dropped in unexpectedly one morning and said there was room in Jean’s van and they were headed to Palermo.
The countryside seemed different from the parts of Sicily I had seen so far. Broader vistas, bigger hills of whitestone. Jean made fun of the shoddy Italian construction and architecture as we passed unfinished buildings and highways along the way.
The next couple of days were perfect, Carol seemed to pay attention to me again. Carol had been getting tired of sharing Giovanni with other women and dealing with the gossip and intrigues of little Piazza Armerina. Now we were in the big city, free of responsibility and worry. After Jean left for work in the morning, we pretended to sleep in. Making sure all the van’s curtains were pulled, she was finally ready to have me as a lover again. Unfortunately the time of the month wasn’t right for a reunion.
After our brief vacation from our year-long vacation, I got back into my routine at Ulla’s. I went to town to work out at the one-room gym and worked out with Giovanni, in the bedroom, at least once a week.
One day Ulla’s water broke. In her house, that is. All the toilets became schifo, disgusting and full of stuff that wouldn’t go down. Since there was no water to boil the pasta, we ate dinner at a neighbor’s. That’s the night Giovanni chose to say he was coming over. Ulla and her elder son waited with me. It got later and later, and before they went to bed, giving up on seeing Giovanni, they jokingly set up a romantic fire for me. But he took so long that the fire was almost dead by the time I heard his car pull up.
We went to my room, and he was amazed at how many blankets I had. I explained how cold it was in that bedroom/basement addition. Sicily is a hot island so all the houses are built for the warm months, and we suffered all winter. And I hadn’t fired up the Danish bed warmer, a huge wooden hippie contraption that heated the blankets.
Giovanni had to go to the bathroom, but I sent him outside. I wasn’t about to let him use my bathroom with the backed-up toilet. That’s too intimate, even for a lover to see.
We did our usual exercise which, with Giovanni, always meant something new. This time we were playing like children in a jungle gym – this position, that position. Whoopee! Yet when all the excitement and the climax had winded down, Giovanni sat up and solemnly said, “Sono stanco, stanco,” I am really tired. He wouldn’t explain this sudden change in mood, and he didn’t seem to be referring to the exertions of acrobatic sex. He felt tired of life itself. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d see his depression and wonder if his life as a Lupo had any meaning.
It had been pouring rain ever since Palermo. Immobilizing as that was, I got myself back into a routine of painting, writing, cutting wood, and getting rides to do errands. A stray dog started coming around, a skinny dachshund-sized creature. I could barely take care of myself, so the last thing I needed was a pet. The Germans told me, with disdain, that Sicilian hunters abandoned their dogs in the countryside when they got too old to be useful, and the poor things usually starved to death. Mine certainly had plenty of ribs showing.
One day, during a break in the storms, I gazed out the window of my shack and saw Georg and Pia slogging through the mud toward me. They first stopped in the “bath house” I never used, where this stray dog tended to hang out. I was worried they’d track dog shit into my house. They barged in, but at least they only got mud everywhere. I usually liked kids, probably since I didn’t want to grow up myself. These two were cute even if they were pushy. Georg read the Italian comics I had bought to improve my language skills. I struggled to talk Pia out of touching my wet oil painting, but she managed to get paint from my pallet all over her. They both wanted to raid my fruit and snacks. It annoyed me, but I remembered their parents often fed me, too.
When I was ready for them to go, I passive-aggressively tidied up around the house, ignoring them. I hoped they might get bored and leave, though that damn guilt welled up again. They proclaimed that they were confiscating the White Out pen I was using for my cartooning, so eye-for-an-eye, I grabbed their pocket knife. We eventually negotiated a trade, and I decided that if they wouldn’t leave, I might as well put them to work. I asked if they’d show me the way to the other hillside spring Hilda had told me about, so I wouldn’t have to use the one by Helmut’s all the time.
The kids led me to a spring down the hill beyond their house. On the way, we passed thickets of old hazelnuts, and I expressed my enthusiasm for collecting all the big dead branches for firewood. They were brittle and easy to snap off. Georg shot me down, though, saying I would need to collect wood from further away, this was the community’s emergency supply. Oh well.
In town with Hilda and the kids the next day, it occurred to me I should offer Hilda some gas money for hauling me and my groceries around so much. She seemed surprised and said oh no, that wasn’t necessary. She had even given me breakfast that morning because I’d gotten to her house early – I wasn’t exactly sure what time it was, because Georg had stolen my clock.
I went to the post office to see about an “urgent package” notice Helmut had told me about. I eagerly anticipated what it might be. It was just a warning that I hadn’t paid enough for the last package. I still owed 4,000 lira! Weird. Not only that, but the customer dis-service woman got upset at my fledgling Italian skills and scolded me loudly enough for everyone in the crowded post office to hear – I should learn the language before coming to the country! Rome and Florence might be accustomed to foreigners, but central Sicily was a different world.
I managed to find Carol, who lifted my mood as we swapped tales at the Wild West Bar. I was on a triple high from seeing her, downing cappuccinos, and reading mail. She walked with me to the art store then Giovanni’s, where the water had stopped working again so I couldn’t take a shower. I’d heard the infrastructure was crumbling in America, but it seemed worse here where it dated back to Roman times. Despite the lack of plumbing, Mick, Veronika, the kids, and their dog were all hanging out at Giovanni’s. It wasn’t a peaceful scene. A Carabinieri officer actually came upstairs to talk with Mick, which freaked me out. Apparently Mick owed fines, with his lack of impulse control it could have been for anything. Carol suggested we excuse ourselves from the tense gathering.
She took me to a watch repair store to get my dysfunctional one working until Georg returned my travel clock. She couldn’t believe I didn’t have the heart, or balls, to ask Hilda to make him return it. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so she suggested I come over for dinner and a shower. I was in for a pleasant shock when I ended up getting even more than that. Finally, after waiting in despair since August!
The next afternoon I got a ride from town with Kai, who casually sipped a beer on the way. I held my breath as we flew over bumps and swerved around corners. He had a devil-may-care attitude, or as close to it as Germans got. Hell, maybe I was more uptight than any German. I didn’t stew about it. It had been an awesome trip to town. I made pasta in my cozy abode and enjoyed the sunset that seemed laden with meaning.
Chapter 8 – A New Old Leaf
Yellow leaves were falling to the ground as new mushrooms sprouted from ancient ruins. The world was turning to face another season, as Persephone descended into hell with her master, Hades. Demeter mourned her daughter’s absence by spreading darkness and cold across the winter landscape. It started to dawn on me that I, like the seasons, had to change. I had to go with the flow on this island that, instead of Sicily, might be better known as Sexily.I shouldn’t be hung up in all those moral values of home – guilt from cheating, puritan views of all sex as bad, etc. I shouldn’t beat myself up for letting Sicily get to me, for a land of aggressive lover boys to weasel their way in between Rob and I. And to enjoy it, dang it. I didn’t know that going with the flow would take me, like Persephone, to visit my own personal hell.
Giovanni took me to meet the woman who was up for a menage a trois. When we stopped by the bar where she worked, she was friendly and put me at ease. I wasn’t sure if she knew who I was, but I just chatted and wondered if I could enjoy sex with her. She had big eyeglasses and a huge frizzy brown mane. She wasn’t dyke cute. She wasn’t even that attractive, but she was skinny so I figured that’s why Giovanni liked her. I’d always assumed skinny women had things easy. I should’ve known better, as my anorexic Sicilian grandmom sure didn’t. But Giovanni saw something to like in every woman. He was courteous in that way. The sex ambassador of Sicily.
I sat down with the espresso she had prepared for me and wrote a letter to Nikki in Rome. I was using the lesbian side of my brain anyway. As I left I mumbled a brief ciao and wondered if we would really do a menage after all. Maybe I should just try the novelty of sleeping with Rob again.
Just as that strange thought crossed my mind, Rob walked up to me. He smiled and said he had come to see me and get a shower in town. I laughed and kept my thoughts to myself.
After a stressful stop at Giovanni’s, I suggested that Ulla and Carlo might be gracious enough to host Rob for dinner. They were fine with having two babysitters, and after the meal they happily went out. I helped monitor the boys’ bath time while Rob actually did the dishes. I always say that doing dishes is the way to a woman’s heart.
I read a story to Emiliano, but my ability to read Italian was awful. I’d never studied the language officially; I’d just picked it up while I was there. So Samuele asked his little brother if he understood my rendition of the story, and Emiliano smiled, with his big blue honest eyes, and said “capito niente” (I understood nothing). At least he went to bed anyway. After I left them upstairs, Samuele read him a proper bedtime story.
Rob and I soon went to bed ourselves. I had a feeling something might transpire. I exercised my new philosophy of going with the flow and letting things happen, and they did. It was strange to have sex in English again after all those months of hearing Giovanni’s Italian. I almost had to translate what Rob was saying into Italian to stay in the moment. I’d never realized that sex could have a language attached to it.
In the morning I felt like we were just friends. I was happy that, unlike Giovanni, who took off as soon as possible, he’d stayed all night and held me. But Rob’s tossing and turning and nighttime bathroom trips annoyed me. I was still looking for reasons not to be with him.
On San Martino’s Day, November 11th, everyone pops open their new bottles of wine for the year and stuffs themselves with sausages. They don’t care much that the day is about a man who was once a Roman soldier but was baptized and became a priest. They use the holiday as a good time and to see whether the grapes are done fermenting.
This year it rained all day, and Ulla asked me to babysit. Instead of feasting, I spent the evening mulling over my relationship with Rob. I was starting to think maybe we should get back together. He understood me, knew me. But I also liked living apart and being able to have conjugal visits with Giovanni. Could I have it all? At least after San Martino’s, we could start drinking the wine that had been lying tantalizingly in wait next to my shower in the basement.
The Festa di San Martino officially marked the coming of winter. Artilio was having a party at his place, featuring his newly-unveiled wine. Fier came by, dressed up and ready to go. He literally had a feather in his cap. He looked incredulous when I begged off. On top of my daily chores, cutting wood and hauling water, I had also let Carol talk me into going to exercise classes at Fabio’s gym, or pallestre. So I had gotten myself all the way to town that morning, and worked out despite my lingering anger at Fabio for stealing Nikki’s affections. Carol had suggested the gym might also be a good place to meet Italian women, but the classes I attended always seemed to be full of old ladies.
After I got back to my house and relaxed with a beer, weariness set in. Threatening clouds seemed to be moving across the valley, and I didn’t want to have to trudge back from Artilio’s in the rain. I stayed home alone, in my somber mood, and painted, while parties raged all around the countryside. I felt especially lame when it didn’t rain after all.
I wasn’t the only one feeling tapped out. The little abandoned hunting dog was sitting near my house. It could barely lift its leg to scratch its fleas. Its back leg made slow, ineffectual circles in the air.
Much later that night, a big wind storm blew through the valley. I could hear the ceramic tiles on the roof shifting above me, and I worried a tree might crash through them. At least that might be romantic, to die abroad. I fretted about global warming producing more and more of these storms and found some comfort in thinking that at least I was safely on an island and not at sea. The safe little volcanic, superstitious, crime-ridden, invasion-prone island of Sicily.
To share my gratitude at surviving the night, I decided to take responsibility for that little dog after all. The next day, along with my lunch, I put on some extra pasta for the pooch. After it cooled, I put it in an old pot and brought it down to the bath shed where the dog stayed. I was overcome by an ominous feeling, and I approached cautiously. As I peeked around the entrance, my fears were confirmed. I saw a tiny foot sticking up in the air. Sure enough, it wasn’t just sleeping. I was heartsick that I hadn’t helped it in time. The stress of the storm that night must have been too much for the little guy.
Hoping to find some solace, I went over to Hilda’s. She reassured me, saying there were so many strays around that she had stopped feeding them. Luckily she still fed stray travelers like me. Actually, I had hoped she’d say she was feeding the dog, so I wouldn’t feel so bad about its last days. I’d found some beans outside the shack, which gave me hope – maybe the kids had fed it. Anyway, what was done was done. Hilda loaned me a shovel to bury the poor creature.
I slept late the next day and eventually got to work breaking yet more wood for my stove. Taking a break for lunch, I noticed that some adorable little birds had started hopping around my wood pile. They were barely more than puff balls, with orange bellies, cute shiny eyes, and tiny beaks barely peeking out from their feathers. I looked them up in my nerdy bird book, and found out they were European robins. The original robins, after which homesick homesteaders in America had named a similarly colored thrush. The birds had come to grab any grubs or bugs I had exposed by breaking up the dead wood. I was glad that, even if I hadn’t been able to help the dog in time, at least I could provide a meal for these birds. I was feeling strangely emotional and nearly ended up in tears that night when I saw a poor beetle had gotten itself stuck on the paint of my pallet. I felt I kept seeing things out of the corner of my eye and wondered if it was a ghost dog. Was I becoming a superstitious Sicilian?
Feeding the birds by breaking a few sticks was fine, but everyone assured me I would need much more wood if I was going to make it through the winter. Hilda offered to take me to see a wood dealer, but I missed the ride. Kai offered again, and I made it that time. But the farmer said he only sold loads worth at least 200,000 lira, about $130, which was more than I wanted to pay.
The next day I enthusiastically returned to town to hang out with Carol. But even after pallestre, I had time to kill before Ulla’s shop opened after the mid-day discanzo. As I milled about, another local vendor and her husband expressed interest in the painting I was carrying. I was excited until I realized they were offering me a paltry 5,000 lira for it, less than five bucks!
Carlo arrived to open the store. He agreed that such a price was insulting, and I should ask at least 150,000 lira for it. He told me that Carol had stayed at Giovanni’s last night, so I headed over there.
Felippe was there too, his car battery had died so he was looking for a ride. He called up to Giovanni, but got no answer and eventually gave up. I thought I saw the shutter on Giovanni’s window move a bit, so I waited across the street. Sure enough, eventually Carol called out for me to come up. When she buzzed me in and I got upstairs, I assumed that the two of them had been faciendo amore earlier and hadn’t wanted to answer. So was I surprised when Annabella answered the door!
I had walked into town to visit Giovanni. This was the first time I’d tried to sleep over there since Annabella had been staying with him. He was worried she would hear us next door in the kitchen, but I pulled him down to the floor anyway. We laughed as we tried the new female condom my mother had sent me in a care package. Perhaps that prophylactic had gotten through the authorities because it wasn’t available in Italy yet. It was awkward and neither of us liked it very much, but I was glad we could laugh about it. Yet in the back of my mind I wished I were with Rob instead. It was an odd turnaround, since I used to wish I were with Giovanni when I was with Rob. Even though Giovanni once again said our sex was bello, I ached at the absence of intimacy and growth in our relationship.
In the morning Annabella fixed us breakfast with the typical “mangia mangia” exhortation, imitating all the Sicilians who force you to eat more than you possibly can. I asked Giovanni why they do that. He said it was because there was nothing else to do. I’d heard that excuse before.
The buzzer rang, and it was Rob. As we waited for Rob to come up the steps, I asked Giovanni if women ever left him because they got bored. He said yes, and because they got jealous. Rob and I left without a backward glance.
I didn’t ask about the Annabella thing. I wasn’t really jealous, I was just glad to see everyone. Ulla had told Carol to invite me to stay over to help harvest olives. It crossed my mind that I should probably be figuring out my winter wood situation rather than goofing off in the olive groves. Later, in town, Fier came to my rescue. He told me to relax – it was no big deal to cut your own wood for the winter, as long as you weren’t an uptight German.
After another lovely sleepover with Carol, in a comfy bed with clean sheets, I got up for the olive hunt. After an invigorating breakfast of tea, bread, and Nutella, we grabbed canvas bags and hiked up the hill behind the house. The process was fairly straightforward – beat the branches with sticks and collect the ripe black olives that fall. Four-year-old Emiliano especially enjoyed the branch whacking. I lifted him so he could reach higher ones, but I almost got whacked a few times myself. The sun rose fast and became oppressive; lunch couldn’t come soon enough for me.
I was so excited to be picking olives just like my ancestors. But in a few minutes, the romantic spell was broken. Bending to pick up all the olives, after we’d beaten the branches with sticks, was back breaking. Samuele and Emiliano were bickering. We were also beaten down by the rising heat. The picnic lunch outside was a well-deserved break, plus some visitors dropped by – every event is a festa in Sicily! I liked Ulla’s friends. She knew all the best hippies within a two hundred mile radius.
I got to see the local olive pressing factory. The fruit was crushed by giant wheels, as the green oil oozed out below. I was as transfixed by the process as four-year-old Emiliano. It brought back Midwestern memories for me. My grandad’s side of the family had moved to Iowa from Germany, in the 1800’s, to farm, and we used to visit the relatives who had stayed when my branch of the family moved to the big city.
Heading into Piazza the next day, after our country labor, Carol talked me into expending yet more energy at the gym. Then we shopped for supplies for a Thanksgiving and Native American feast. She’d almost given up on finding turkey in Sicily, and she desperately wanted to introduce our friends to this American custom. We couldn’t find sweet potatoes either, so we bought carrots to cook instead. I didn’t really care about the details. I just looked forward to a big meal and a good party!
Shopping at the tiny grocery store, I noticed a striking man in a leather jacket. Was I getting a second chance at a macho motorcycle rider? He stood next to me as we stared into the milk cooler. Why was I attracted to this man? Maybe his cool look and Italianness were reason enough. I wondered how I could talk to him. I uttered some dumb question about the difference between one brand of milk and another. He looked back at me, his gorgeous brown eyes sizing me up like I was from outer space. He didn’t understand my Italian, or my question. Oh well.
As I left the store, Rob was actually talking to some guys he had befriended. Maybe he wasn’t hopelessly antisocial after all! They weren’t the usual hippies, they actually looked more punk. Rob introduced me to his friend Vito. The leather-jacket guy, Ettore, came out of the store and said hi to Vito too. What luck! Vito introduced Ettore to his American friends. Now Ettore understood why I was so strange. It was good to have an excuse – blame my country of origin for my dumb question about milk.
I parted ways with Carol, who seemed a bit too interested in talking to Vito and Ettore. I stopped to do some flirting, myself, with Fiametta at the art supply store. I felt a new lease on life now that Carol and I were getting it on again. I felt sexier and possibly even desirable.
Her name meant Little Flame, and I sure carried a big torch for her. She had shiny, flowing brown hair and blue eyes set above perfect cheekbones. I tried to convince myself that girls like this were easier to approach when stuck in small backwater towns, unlike their stuck-up compatriots in the big cities. I took the opportunity to have a little chat with her.
Fiametta talked of how she loved dancing and singing and mentioned she was planning to go to a club in Enna, the provincial capital, this Saturday. A co-worker seemed interested and joined our conversation; hot damn! She enthused about how she liked American music. I wouldn’t mind making beautiful music with her. I was in heaven and tried not to let the usual gloomy thoughts cloud my mental skies. How the hell am I going to arrange this? I don’t have a phone, a car, or a fixed address! I don’t have any clothes that are up to Italian standards! I wear combat boots, for Chrissake!
I checked out the “Polish” market near Giovanni’s, where vendors from the former eastern bloc came to sell all manner of small things. I was excited by the selection of communist memorabilia, and bought some revolutionary lapel pins and a toy missile launcher. I noticed a particularly cute young woman, in tall leather boots, inspecting metal tools. I tried to joke with her that we could build something together. She smiled as if I were a kindly idiot and turned away.
I ended up back at Ulla’s house in the country, helping Carol cook her Thanksgiving meal. It was a week early, but Carol was going to be in Rome with her aunt for almost a month, and she figured the Italians wouldn’t care about the details.
Cooking for Italians is high pressure. I never felt like I could help much at Ulla’s except to boil water. The only way I could contribute was with the few dishes that were truly American and didn’t repulse them. Having ruled out hot dogs and fries, that didn’t leave much. November brought the one holiday that combined food and America in a way Italians could understand, the Thanksgiving feast.
Since I had lived on the reservation the previous year, I made the meal as indigenous as possible. I was finding out that Italians were fascinated with Native Americans. I had my mom send ingredients like hand picked wild rice and proper American bleached flour to make fry bread. I also whipped up cornbread, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and caramelized carrots and popped open a can of cranberry sauce that Mom had sent along with those female condoms. I baked a pie with canned pumpkin. I had never made a Thanksgiving meal before, but I enjoyed a day full of cutting, stirring, and preparing. I was giving back to all my friends who had fed and sheltered me for months. I enlisted Rob to help too.
We had finally found turkey, or at least pieces of the elusive tachino, at the market. That worked out better anyway, being faster to roast than a whole bird. I added Italian flair with fresh rosemary on top. There was nothing to stuff, so I put the stuffing all around the turkey pieces in the pan. Ulla’s wood burning stove turned out the best Thanksgiving turkey I’d ever had.
I gathered Ulla, Carlo, Felippe, Marlies, and another of Ulla’s hippie friends from Catania, plus all their children, around the table. I led a Native American prayer I had learned, thanking the Great Spirit for our health, families, and friends.
I went outside and left a spirit plate with a sample of each of the foods plus some tobacco, as I had learned on the reservation since my religious training was zilch as a child. I balanced it in a high tree branch, hoping the dogs and other animals wouldn’t get it. It was meant for those who had gone to the next world before us.
The cool November air had a new effect on me, as dusk welcomed our holiday. It was more than a change in season, it was almost traveling through time. Even if this wasn’t the real Thanksgiving, and even if we were re-enacting it a week early, I felt connected to home. I felt connected to both the Earth and the spirit world, with ancient guardians I felt sure were protecting me in whichever land I walked on. Now I was in the land of my own ancestors’ spirits. I felt at home in the way I had seen tribal members feel back on the reservation, where they were surrounded by their own ancestors.
When I came back inside from my moment of prayer and meditation, everyone raved about the food. I found it funny to think they had never eaten stuffing before. I was tickled that I could actually please the overdeveloped Italian palate with new wonders.
After dinner we sat around talking and digesting the overabundance of American carbohydrates. Rob put his arm around me as Carlo played the guitar, and everyone sang Italian tunes and American classic rock songs. Rob stayed over, and I was happy to have him in bed with me again.
The next day I was back on the road. Piazza Armerina felt like home, but the travel muscles in my body still needed exercise from time to time. At least I tried to convince myself of that. I was just starting to get my bearings in Sicily, and now Aunt Kay wanted me to come touristing with her. At least I was able to convince Rob to come with me for a while.
In the morning we enjoyed cornbread for breakfast and made Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches to take for lunch. They tasted better on the Italian pane than the “traditional” pre-cut white bread. Ulla drove us to town while dropping Samuele off at school. I had to remind myself that Thanksgiving was technically still a week away, and kids didn’t get Thanksgiving vacation in Sicily anyway. At home people spent the Friday after their Thanksgiving vacations fighting in shopping lines on Black Friday.
The trip didn’t get off to an auspicious start, as the bus to Catania made me completely nauseated. All those dry brown hills of summer were now beautifully green with rain, but riding up and down them still made me sick. I hoped it wasn’t due to pregnancy.
Meeting up with Carol’s friends in Catania, they wanted to show us some sights, so we drove up to a mountain radio post near Messina. The views across the Tyrrenian and back inland were awe inspiring. We ate sandwiches, and I collected unusual rocks.
It got cold soon at this altitude, so we headed back, by way of Messina, to get some more touring in. from a hill over the port, we watched as whole train cars were loaded onto the massive ferry for Naples. Guiseppe and his friends told us about plans for a bridge connecting Sicily to mainland Italy, which had been postponed for decades. With true Sicilian resignation, no one believed it would ever actually get built.
Heading back along the coast, toward Giuseppe’s family’s vacation house in Naxos, I noticed the scenic beaches strewn with colorful trash. I was curious whether it had all washed up from the sea or was left by sunbathers. I didn’t want to insult our friends and ask. That evening we drank and played cards. Carol won.
We headed for a renowned local pizzeria, and on the way they asked me what I would like from a ridiculous menu they made up – they named pizzas with crazy names and bizarre toppings. I wasn’t entirely sure they were joking. After all, actual Sicilian pizza toppings include peas, French Fries, fish, and boiled eggs. Giuseppe had more activities planned for us the next day. He picked us up in the morning, and we headed for his family’s vacation house near Mt. Etna. They stopped at a market to buy some food for lunch, and at the house they cooked sausages. They were mouthwatering, at least the parts I could chew. They were a bit more gristly than any I’d had in America. I secretly spit out the cartilage chunks and fed them to a limping cat that hovered nearby. The food and wine helped my mood, but apathy lurked nearby. I worried that they only liked hanging out with the gregarious Carol, not sad-sack me.
Our hike through the crunching pumice fields of Etna was invigorating, it was like a moonscape. I soaked in the views and imagined the chambers of magma boiling below us. According to the Greeks, it was the forge of Vulcan. Giuseppe harassed us to move faster. An engineer, he seemed more goal-oriented than contemplative. We had left the more easy-going Flaminio back at the house, watching a soccer match on TV. He gladly joined us for pasta at a restaurant, near the beach in Naxos, afterwards.
Flaminio and Giuseppe had to return to work and their houses, in the city, twenty minutes away. Giuseppe said we could stay at his beach house as long as we needed to. In a few days Carol would catch the train to visit her aunt.
I don’t know what Giuseppe thought of me, but Flaminio once had a good laugh when we returned to the car and there was a distinct odor. Carol blurted out that it was me. I had tried to keep it outside, but Giuseppe was rushing us into the car! As we all laughed, Flamino loved learning a new English word: fart. From then on, he called me “Ro-ab Fa-ert” in his accent. They would probably have gotten a great laugh out of my cabin’s rustic shit pit.
When our Catanian friends took us to the mountains north of Messina, I saw once again the volcanic Aeolian Islands. With Etna smoking behind us, I felt surrounded by the molten energy of Sicily. Snow ringed her seething crater, another of the strange juxtapositions in this land. I caught a glimpse of Italy’s boot bottom, Calabria, where I would soon be riding the rails.
Our hike up Etna was a pain, the lava rocks were unstable to walk on and sharp-edged when you fell. But I was happy to be getting up close and personal with the volcano herself. Was this the force controlling me on this mysterious island? A passionate pyre of feminine fire?
The Greeks claimed the volcano spewed endless smoke because the ugliest God, Vulcan, lay under her, melting rock into beautiful jewelry. His work was so elegant that he won the heart of the breathtaking Aphrodite.
It was dark when we descended the mountains toward Naxos for dinner. Rob entertained our friends by drawing cartoons of them on napkins. We sadly had to cut the fun short – it was the middle of the week, and they had to work the next day. They were planning to head back that night, as the twenty miles from Naxos to Catania was too big a morning commute for Italians, unaccustomed to the American suburban lifestyle. Giuseppe trusted Rob and me to stay overnight in his beach house, they’d come back to see me off. After they left, I walked out to the porch and heard the waves’ rhythmic crashing on the shore. A truly Sicilian idea popped in my head.
“Rob, come out here!” I yelled.
He wandered out, totally clueless.
“Have you ever had sex on the beach?”
“Oh, Carol!” He scoffed. But as deprived as he’d been for months, he could hardly say no.
We found a blanket and went out onto the sand, closer to the water. Unfortunately, as we tried to reenact the name of the bar drink, a car pulled up to the neighboring dock. We heard the doors open and shut, and we just knew they could see Rob’s rear end flying up and down, spotlighted by the parking lot lights. Rob froze in mid-thrust. What if they were carabinieri? We didn’t want to risk another police encounter.
We laughed and headed back to the beach house. I suggested that the patio would be close enough. I sat up on the wall, and he had to stand on his tiptoes to reach me. But we had fun with our sex near the beach. I was glad that Rob seemed to be loosening up and practicing some of my “go with the flow” philosophy.
In the morning, we walked around the town again, strolling along its version of a boardwalk. Unlike boardwalks in the US, with French fries and roller coasters, it was lined with ceramic shops and snoozy cafes. We held hands and philosophized about relationships, how they never went in the direction you’d expected. I loved looking out at the winter sun, a lone fisherman among a flotilla of colorful pleasure craft, and old women peeking out of windows weathered by sea winds. This was the Sicily I had imagined!
Unfortunately I was leaving my beloved island, that night, on a train to Rome. Rob was heading back to Piazza since my aunt didn’t invite him on our giro di Italia. As I watched his bus ride away, I was fascinated by how quickly one can say goodbye and move on to another stage of life.
One weird coincidence was that Giovanni had a sound tech gig in Naxos that day. He picked me up at the bus station, and we strolled on the dark beach lit by a large sliver of moon. It reminded us of our night in Gela the summer before. He told me the sea always stays the same as it was that night. We hugged and kissed a little, and he lovingly enumerated all the sex acts he wanted to do with me when I got back. That was Giovanni, always planning ahead.
He was sad when he brought me to the train station, as if I were going away forever. He explained that he had felt even more melancholy lately. Holding my hand, he squeezed it and said earnestly, “Piccola Carol,” my dear little Carol. The train overpowered us with its cold mechanical presence. We hugged one last time, and he helped me step up into my compartment. Back on the platform, he seemed concerned for me. He kept looking for me until the train left him standing there, alone.
As with Rob, this goodbye seemed sad but short. It was only for one month. But as much as Italy was stuck in its old ways, things could also change so quickly. I would never have thought, in a million years, that I would break up with Rob. Now was it time to break up with Giovanni? I put it out of my mind. Just enjoy the ride, I told myself, and try not to get anything stolen on the way to Rome. I fell asleep clutching my camera.
Arriving in Catania I was glad Giuseppe and Flaminio had agreed to pick me up. Big-hearted Flaminio helped me with hotel money for the night. I had optimistically brought only 80,000 lira, around $55, to last the whole week. They helped me find a halfway decent pensione. At 35,000 Lira, it was the best I could hope for.
I didn’t sleep well. With winter winds swirling outdoors, Sicily’s mosquitoes had sought refuge inside. The whine of their wings kept me jumping out of bed all night. Repeatedly I leapt to flip on the lights, hoping to smash the flying fuckers against the walls. As I looked around, I noticed shoe prints all over the walls, like some crazy dance diagram. A previous aggravated guest had pulled out the heavy artillery against the bloodthirsty invaders. Between a few lucky shoe prints was the red splatter of victory.
After a fitful night, I got up when the sun started seeping through the gaps in the porch doors. Looking in the mirror, I frowned at the red welts the mosquitoes had given me as mementos of my trip. It was a souvenir of my last days with Carol before she left to see her family for a month. Lost in my gloomy thoughts, I forgot to leave the key at the pensione desk. I wouldn’t realize it until I was all the way back in Piazza.
I managed to find the right bus, at the station, but there was a catch. I had to buy a ticket, and they were only sold at certain shops, not at the station itself. Genius. I looked around frantically trying to find the right store, with no luck. My backpack felt heavier and heavier. I finally wandered into a plaza where the weekly market was taking place. Amidst the chaos, I managed to spot our German friend Jean, who was doing his braiding. He asked another German-speaking vendor where to get a bus ticket, and I was told it was a twenty-minute walk! So I missed the bus, and all for a 90-cent ticket! But at least I now had the precious thing in my hand, and I counted my blessings as I waited for the next one.
In the waiting room, I considered passing the time by exercising my language skills with a girl there. She seemed to be intently reading a textbook, though, and I couldn’t work up the courage to penetrate her wall of studiousness. I watched flies fighting and mating on the peeling wall instead. At least someone was getting some action.
The bus finally pulled out of town after noon, the driver blasting some upbeat Bon Jovi anthems that lifted my mood a bit. Being abroad for a year wasn’t so bad – I was Living on a Prayer in a Blaze of Glory! I even spotted a long-haired Kurt Cobain look-alike at the bus stop in Valguarnera. He made me wistful for America, and I thought about how Kurt had tried to kill himself, by overdosing in Rome, before finally succeeding in Seattle. Maybe it was all faked, and he had disappeared into the mystery-laden Sicilian countryside to get away from the fame and success he couldn’t handle. Elvis and Jim Morrison were supposed to be secretly alive somewhere abroad, so why not? These celebrities seemed to be escaping the very things I thought would make my life feel feel worthwhile. Ah well, maybe being rich and famous wasn’t all it was made out to be after all. Maybe I didn’t have to feel like a loser for living a boring, normal life.
Back in Piaza the next morning, I swallowed my pride and visited the farmacia. I had decided to continue my course of taking action in life rather than wallowing in self-pity. I described my problem to the staff; an itchy scalp had plagued me since Menfi. I asked if I needed something stronger than dandruff shampoo.
The woman suggested I might have pulce, lice, and urged me to use an anti-parasite shampoo. I bought it, wondering how soon word would spread that this American’s beautiful blond locks hid the scourge of disease! That couldn’t be good for my already failing romantic endeavors. Back in America I would find out it was just stress-fueled psoriasis, but for a year I had to endure in ignorance. That made more sense since Carol never shared the bugs even after she shared my bed.
I met Hilda at Bar Charlotte and was pleased that she offered to treat me to a drink as we waited for Kai and the kids. I chose a caffeine high rather than a beer buzz. It seemed more respectable. Kai drove, and it was an uneventful ride home until we were suddenly waved to a stop by submachine gun-toting soldiers at a roadblock. It was glad Kai wasn’t sipping a beer on that ride.
Italian soldiers had been stationed in Sicily for several years, since the government had launched a new crackdown on the Mafia. According to Fier, Sicilians felt they were being occupied by yet another foreign power, but I hadn’t really sympathized with them until now. Kai had forgotten his license, and I had no idea what the consequences might be. Luckily, Hilda had hers, and the officer agreed to let us go if she finished the driving. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was terrified they might check my passport and ask why I had been here so long without a visa. I got a nervous twitch in my lip which lasted the rest of the day.
As I unfolded myself from the tiny car, after we’d arrived at their house, Georg and Pia stole handfuls of pears from my grocery bag. After the afternoon’s excitement, I didn’t feel like causing a fuss. I relaxed at home, cut some wood, and feasted on ham paninis, salad, and leftover spaghetti. I boiled rice and chestnuts for tomorrow’s menu, started a fire to warm my feet, kicked back, and listened to music. Fier stopped by and invited me for a spaghetti dinner. I was feeling jovial and figured I could always eat more.
could always eat more.
I enjoyed Fier’s company, though the smoke from his searing “Belgian” French fries almost choked me. His spaghetti was tasty, with plenty of spice and garlic, and I supplied cheese for the bread. Fier shared some of his experiences with the Mafia and international corruption. It was fascinating, but I became worried I might start to know too much. Or was he just a harmless loon? His conspiracy theories stretched all the way up to the Pope’s drug and gun-running cartel. Luckily he changed the subject to his unrequited love for a local girl by the name of Rosalva. Around one in the morning, I managed to negotiate the path home, where I stayed up even later thanks to the pots of over-sugared tea Fier had brewed.
I was pleased to have leftover spaghetti with eggs to eat. However, after a while, I felt a bit sick, and I worried that I’d poisoned myself with unrefrigerated food. My stomach gradually recovered. I must have developed a stomach of steel living in Sicily. In addition to the shrimp-like larvae in my water, we had often found maggots in the tomatoes, figs, oranges, and other produce that had been left out in the open. I had joked with Carol about a possible PR slogan for Sicily – “When in Sicily, you simply must try the worms!”
I wanted to do some art, but I felt guilty for not helping my neighbors work their land. I stayed in bed clandestinely reading and writing instead, hoping those passing by wouldn’t see me. My electricity kept stuttering off and on for some reason.
I counted twenty days until Carol returned to Piazza Armerina. Mustering some reserve of positive energy, I decided I should banish negative thoughts from my mind. I should just let time pass and be at peace with it. Why feel rushed or disappointed in life? As I had been told, la vita e sempre la stessa – la Sicilia non cambia mai. Things never change in Sicily, life is always the same.
The following day I poked around town with Fier, and we got a ride back to Valle Perfetta with Hilda again. Fier waved excitedly to someone he knew on the street – maybe it was Rosalva. This distracted Hilda, and she ran into a little Fiat. Luckily the matter was easily cleared up, but I could see why Fier was getting on Hilda’s and Kai’s nerves.
I volunteered, with Fier, to help Kai work on his new property, mostly because I was curious to see it. He showed me around the fields and ruins of the old house and told me of his grand plans to get restoration funds from the Commune and start an agritourist hotel. I thought we were getting along well and that I was being a good neighbor by showing interest and helping out. So I was rather hurt when, after I expressed interest in the story behind the land, Kai got upset at me for asking too many questions! It was starting to seem like a theme around here.
Kai didn’t invite me for dinner, and I might not have accepted if he had. Instead, Fier invited me to eat potatoes and pasta with him, which I did gladly. I bitched about Kai’s anger with me, and Fier sympathized. He expounded about his odd position of living here amongst Germans, when he was from a heritage which had been doubly oppressed by them. He was Jewish and also from Holland, which had been occupied by the Germans during five brutal years of war. He told me how strange it was to be descended from the few Jews remaining in Holland after the Holocaust.
In Amsterdam, Fier had once passed an old man on the street. The old man did a double-take, and then he turned and ran to grab Fier, shouting, “Jan! Jan! It’s you! You’ve come back!” The poor old man thought Fier looked just like his brother, the last time he had seen him in 1944. Fier was heartbroken having to dash the man’s desperate hopes.
After all this deep discussion, he said we should lighten things up. And light up we did. He pulled out the remains of his pot stash and meticulously retrieved every last green flake from the crumpled plastic baggie. He whipped out a worn deck of cards and taught me the rules of the game Scopa. The name means “sweep” and refers to the goal of clearing the table of cards. But as with many things in Italy, the word scopare is also a metaphor for sex.
I enjoyed the artwork on the Sicilian cards. They were like a Tarot deck, which seemed to fit the mystical air of the land. Even the infamous spiritualist Aleister Crowley had taken up residence in Sicily years before, and he had purportedly locked a female artist in his castle’s tower until she had illustrated a whole Tarot deck just for him. Fier and I stayed up late, enjoying our game of swords and clubs, coins and chalices.
Thursday market rolled around, and I needed food badly. I didn’t want to get a ride with Hilda, though, because I was still mad at Kai. But Kai came by and seemed apologetic. He invited me to come with him, so I did. I thought things were chilled out but, on the ride back, Hilda laid into me. “Don’t you think that when you stay at someone’s house, it is a nice thing to clean up around the house? That would be the nice thing to do, don’t you think?” I agreed, but she wouldn’t let up. She pointed out all the things I should be doing, trimming the bushes, pulling weeds, and fixing terrace walls. Shit, now I’m really never going to have time to do my art! Chastened and angry, I promised I would do all those things.
I helped carry her groceries into their house, and they offered me lunch. I helped Kai clear brush on his land again, careful not to pry too much. I felt I was on eggshells in Valle Perfetta now, just when I had started to feel at home and comfortable in my routine. I had bought a two-liter bottle of wine at the market, and that night I drank most of it. It seemed to help me forget my sorrows, and I marveled at how drinking always seemed to help me do things I was putting off. I actually heated a tub of water and washed my hair for the first time in a long while. How refreshing! My poor bald landlord, Helmut, would be proud of me.
Fier was impressed with my coming around to the joys of farming life. He stopped by early the next morning, and I must have bought good wine because I didn’t have much of a hangover. He talked me into carrying tangles of old barbed wire, rusty fig-drying racks,and boxes of trash up to the top of the hill behind his house. There was a makeshift dump there behind an old dead VW van. I smiled thinking how Hans and Sabine would love to play amongst this detritus.
Fier treated me to a lunch of oatmeal, which struck me as rather gruel-like and medieval. Especially since Fier had just joked behind Kai’s back that we were serfs on the estate of “Lord Kai.” I was glad farm work was cancelled for the time being, as Fier had to get to town for a dental appointment. But before he left, he crafted a spinelli using leaves freshly plucked from a pot plant he was growing. The plant was so small I worried that stripping off those tiny leaves would kill it. But Farmer Fier seemed to know what he was doing.
Late in the afternoon, I helped Kai rake brush into big piles to burn. He shared his bottle of homemade red wine with me, which felt surprisingly comradely after his attitudes of late. I took the last swig from the bottle and immediately worried whether that was appropriate. I remembered that, when eating at Carlo’s, Kai would cut the tiniest remaining morsel of bread into ridiculously small halves instead of selfishly finishing the loaf himself. Well, I was young and learning.
Kai just sent me back to his house to fill up the bottle. As I did, Hilda scowled and told me to tell him lui beva troppo, he drinks too much. When I gave him Hilda’s message, he laughed. In a buoyant frame of mind, he told me I could probably cut enough wood for myself this winter, after all, rather than buying an overpriced supply from some local farmer. Such work was good for the spirit, he said.
I decided to celebrate my good mood by getting drunk. I’d bought a bottle of wine earlier. I cranked up my new REM cassette and wrote a bunch of giddy letters. At least I’d have time to reconsider them, unlike emails. I was having a grand time until I shoved a fresh piece of wood into the red-hot stove. My reaction time was slowed from the alcohol. It seemed that I heard my flesh hiss and sizzle for a long time before realizing what was happening. In agony, I yanked my hand away and cursed. Soaking my throbbing hand in cold water and popping aspirin, I finally got to sleep.
Market day came again, the weekly measure by which time passed. I didn’t want to get a ride with Hilda since Kai had made sarcastic comments about Fier needing “Mother Hilda” too much for baths, laundry, food, and rides. I didn’t want to be another needy and annoying neighbor. Something called “Childrens’ Day” was going on in the valley, where the adults gathered all the kids for a celebration. I made a point of doing a lot of work on the land around my house that day so that everyone could see I was trying to be a good German.
The next day I rose early to help Kai again. Since it was Sunday, the whole family came. I enjoyed silly jokes with Georg and Pia while they used up their energy on the weeds, not on me. By lunchtime I was ready for a break and said off-handedly to Kai, “Quest’e brutto lavoro!” this is brutal work! That didn’t trigger the response I’d intended. He got very serious and almost scowled as he denied that the work was tough. He said it was good for the body and spirit. I seemed to be endangering all the good will I had built up until that point by questioning the purity of honest labor. I backtracked and explained that I was only joking, and that I agreed with him. Sheesh.
I guess my ideological purity had been put in question, because Hilda accusingly asked if I had improperly pruned some fruit trees along the path near Fier’s house. I felt something close to panic as I remembered I had considered doing just that. The branches hung so low that it was annoying to run into them, especially at night. But I hadn’t gotten around to it, and I did my best to convince her it wasn’t me. Fier wasn’t around for them to interrogate, and I started to get paranoid – was this part of his nefarious plan? To get me kicked out of Valle Perfetta so that Annabella could leave Giovanni’s and stay here instead? She would probably work harder than I did,, and she was also cuter.
I went back with Hilda to help make lunch. It was farfalla pasta with tuna, and we carried it in sacks, along with wine, grape juice, milk, and mandarins, for a picnic. We worked until late afternoon. I felt kind of upset when they didn’t invite me for dinner after all that work. But I realized I’d feel guilty if they did invite me; I really couldn’t win.
On the walk back, Kai gave me one final correction. When he’d told me grazie for the day’s help, I had responded certo, meaning “certainly.” In English that would mean, “Oh, certainly I want to help you!” But Kai let me know gruffly that you don’t respond that way in Italian. He said that in Italian it means, “Certainly you should thank me for my help.” Arggh. Vivere e apprendere, live and learn. But not among the Germans. They saw two kinds of people: the proper ones, who naturally knew how things should be, and the lesser ones, who would always need to be told everything.
Despite being scolded for imprudent pruning, Fier swallowed his pride and joined in the field work with Hilda, Kai, and me again the next day. This time Hilda provided a delicious lunch of garlic-heavy “broccoli Siciliana,” along with a feast of greens, bread and cheese, and applesauce from the mele cotone, fuzzy apples. We labored until early evening, and then Fier invited me for tea. Hilda stopped by with cheese from Aidone for us. She looked us up and down and said we were so disgusting we should come to their house for a bath. We gladly accepted.
I was a little nervous that Kai might think I was becoming dependent on “Mother Hilda,” but I went first anyway. The bathtub was in a nook separated from the kitchen by a curtain. Georg kept poking his head in and making faces.
Before Fier could take his turn in the tub, Kai came in from other chores and flipped out because Hilda had invited us without asking him. He fumed that there wouldn’t be enough hot water for everyone and that he needed to wash up before seeing Helmut that evening. It seemed that everyone here walked on eggshells around Helmut.
Kai cut in front of the bath line, and then he and Hilda went to Helmut’s and left us to watch the kids and wait for more water to heat. They actually had a TV, so we watched some German videos and drank wine. There was a pile of dishes in the sink, and leftover hot water, so I suggested we should be helpful and wash them. Fier scoffed, feeling he didn’t owe them anything more. I washed them alone.
Getting back to my house, long after dark, I headed to my open air “outhouse” by candlelight. I hoped that Carol had gotten my letter at her plush Roman hotel.
The sea around Sicily has a slow tidal flow. Smooth sailing until you get to the East Coast tip between Messina and the Italian mainland. Then all hell breaks loose and they say it’s “between Scylla and Charybdis,” or “between a rock and a hard place.” Scylla is the monster on the Sicilian side, and Charybdis is the Calabrian one. In this way the Greeks warned sailors about the dangerous currents ahead. I got sad every time I passed over these lovely monsters. Not because I was bummed I couldn’t swim between them for fun. It meant I was leaving my beloved Sicily. After Sicily was out of sight, as the train moved farther up the boot coast, I fell asleep. After Sicily, there wasn’t much else to see.
I jolted awake as the train lurched into Rome, then I easily found the hotel my aunt had chosen. I just looked for the most garish one. Instead of my usual tiny cheap pensione, I was now enveloped by shiny gold five-star swank. Kay was not a light packer like those of us who wore everything on our backs. She had two huge flower-print suitcases to lug around, plus a carry-on handbag that matched. I was shocked that she had packed so much. However, some of it did come in handy while we shared a hotel room. Like the air freshener for when we had to “visit the poo poo fairy,” as she called it.
Aunt Kay hadn’t been much a part of my life when I was a child, but when I grew up I started popping into her place in San Francisco. She was a delight. She always welcomed me with open arms and never judged me, even the time I arrived with a huge hickey on my neck from the cowboy who wanted “varmint” children with me. She just wrapped a stylish scarf around me to cover it up.
Unlike me, Kay was known for style. Unfortunately she never felt thin enough to enjoy it. When I complained that Giovanni said I was “coccione,” big-thighed, she said she would kill for my legs. Like her, I never seemed to feel good enough.
Aunt Kay gave me a big hug and explained her idea of a proper tour of Italy. She could understand visiting the motherland, but why hadn’t I planned to see the cultural sites of Rome, Venice, and Florence? I was grateful for her gesture, and after I’d see these cities on her dime, I too recommended them to everyone I met.
After our month long tour of mainland Italy, my mother joined us to see Sicily. She, like me, only thought of that triangular island. Plus, she had already seen Italy in the 1950s with my dad, way before their divorce. She’d also briefly visited Sicily but had never dug deep enough to find our roots. Now, as a threesome we could see if we had more luck finding the family jewels of history.
Mom told me Dad had tried to call, but he’d had a strange, strained conversation with Giovanni. Dad couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t coming to the phone. He misunderstood Giovanni’s broken English and thought I was traveling Northern Italy with some guy named Bobo. I had to laugh. Come on Dad, would I seriously go around with someone named Bobo?
I tried to put fantasies of Carol’s lavish lifestyle out of my mind as our brutal labor continued on Kai’s property. At least at night we had huge bonfires of piles of brush we had gathered that were taller than we were. It was stirring to watch the flames jump and writhe, sending sparks up to the stars above. It felt like some kind of pagan ritual, which seemed appropriate here. I gazed at the hill rising across the valley and could almost imagine lights from the ancient city Giovanni said was there. It was like we were sending an offering to the constellations of gods that were still above.
Kai offered meals and baths, but he sternly advised that I should begin to “look out for myself.” At first I thought he meant I was in some sort of danger, perhaps from shepherds, but then I realized he meant that I should learn to take care of my own needs. I felt hurt, since I hadn’t asked for these luxuries like baths and food. At least not tonight.