Chapter 16 – Argento (silver) in Agrigento
In Agrigento province we found the silver lining, the Fedoro Argento, to our clouded situation. Nella and her fiancée, Benedetto, picked us up in Santa Margherita. Pleasantly surprised, Benedetto couldn’t wait to ask, “Carol! Rob! What are you doing here?”
“You said you couldn’t make it!” Nella was dying with curiosity about our sudden appearance back in town.
“Well, we had a problem with some Germans back in Piazza Armerina.”
That’s all anyone ever needed to hear. I hadn’t realized that most of the continent had never really forgiven the Germans, those pesky Tedeschi, for the war. Now the Germans didn’t invade their countries with tanks, but they were rude tourists. I guess the Jews will always be thought of as stingy, and Germans will never be forgiven for their superior, conquering mentality.
We lucked out that not only was it time for the Labor Day festivities, but also for Santa Margherita’s town festival. Like Piazza Armerina’s unique August festival reenacting the Norman “liberation,” Santa Margherita has jousting and horse races up and down Main Street on their town’s holiday.
We walked down the long race course. Every ten minutes a new group of horses hurtled by. It was the most efficient and fastest thing I’d ever seen Sicilians organize. People of all ages walked around and socialized. Men had their betting cards, and children watched the horses in awe. The railings surrounding the course strained under the weight of observers climbing to get a view. It was a wall of Sicilian butts a mile long.
I loved strolling around with Nella and Benedetto, running into more people I knew. They seemed like real friends. Whenever sad thoughts of Piazza Armerina came up, I reminded myself I was lucky to be here seeing this amazing festival. This was the real reason I came to Sicily, to get to know towns like this, the towns of my ancestors. Not to hang out with people who were more foreign to Sicily than I was.
We enjoyed their hospitality for days.Unlike in Piazza Armerina, where people just waved and went on their way, friends invited us for pranza. We got free breakfast coffee and croissants just for being among the few Americans to visit. We played chess and cards and giggled at porn magazines left by construction workers at the hotel. It was like a Sicilian puppet angel had swooped down and rescued me from hell.
On May Day, Benedetto drove us to his co-worker’s house in the country. In this socialist-leaning country, it is a tradition for all of a company’s workers to gather for a picnic. They don’t just take a three-day weekend and head the hell out of town as we individualistic Americans do.
At the sprawling farm, the women were busy making pasta from scratch. They mixed the dough precisely then pushed it through metal pasta cutters. Since the men’s job was to ”supervise,” they gathered to ask about the U.S. After entertaining them with stories of life across the ocean, Rob went off with them to play scopa. The women didn’t seem to get much time off on this so-called holiday. No one else seemed bothered by the injustice and absurdity of it.
I watched the ladies cooking tomato sauce on the cufinaro, the open fire, and putting the pasta out to dry. Trying to decipher their particular Sicilian dialect was a new challenge. I started kicking myself – I should have stayed here all year and learned the true dialect of my ancestors! I would have had real friends like the Rabitos, who welcomed us even though we didn’t seem to be related.
Maybe my questions had gotten some people thinking. A heated discussion broke out between the women in the kitchen and the men standing around by the door. They argued about gender roles and marriage, and I was afraid their hand gestures would fling tomato sauce everywhere. By the time they had blown off their steam, the water was boiling outside. The women tossed the dried pasta into the steaming cauldron.
When it was cooked to al dente perfection, a few minutes later, the women threw the pasta in a mountainous pile on a wooden table outside, as if feeding pigs at a trough. The men closed in as the sauce was ladled generously over the noodles. At that point they pounced, lowering their faces to the table and shoveling the food greedily into their mouths. They only needed forks, no plates, so I suppose they were saving the women some clean-up.
I had to snap some pictures of this scene. But as soon as I pulled out my camera, both women and men hurried over to implore me never show the pictures to anyone – they didn’t want people to think Sicilians were crude. I just thought it looked cute.
The rambling farm had a view of vineyards rolling to the sea. Guests were segregated by sex. After we men spent an afternoon at long tables drinking wine, eating antipasti, and playing cards, the women wiped the sweat from their brows and prepared to feed us. They dumped a cauldron of homemade sauce on top of the hand-cut pasta they had piled on a table, and they stood back as the men dove in. Some men used forks, and others just shoved their faces into the food. I was game to try it myself. But just as I twirled a strand of noodles around my fork, a couple of women ran up and handed me a plate full of pasta. They insisted that, as a guest, I didn’t have to eat like these “animale.” It was easier to eat from the plate, but I felt a bit emasculated. It was bad enough that, here in this conservative part of the country, my long hair was quite a spectacle. It reminded me of how I’d felt at Fier’s Trattoria when his friends had tried to feel me up and sweet talk me into coming out to their farm. Fortunately, nothing like that happened this time. I had arrived with a woman, so maybe I was O.K.
The sauce was exquisitely spiced, and the pasta had a texture no machine could match. It was followed by salsiccia and trinche di maiale, a pork salad. For dessert there was a fruit called nespola. They were like orange plums with multiple seeds, and they were pleasantly sweet-tart. We also had fried dough treats called “svingeres.” The women were finally done cooking, and they had a short break to join in some fun before they had to begin cleaning up.
There was a round of tug-of-war games, and then a bonfire toward sunset. The bonfire seemed charming until they threw on bagfuls of plates and other trash, polluting the air with the smell of burning plastic. I needed a discanzo, so I snuck into Bennedetto’s car to try to sleep, but the kids discovered me. They kept banging on the windows and making funny faces. I gave up and returned to socialize.
The families gathered to sit, in a circle, in the shade. Men took turns singing a verse, and everyone else joined the chorus. We sang one ribald Sicilian song after another. The unofficial Sicilian motto “Eat, sleep, and dot dot dot” popped into my mind again. Sex was always a popular theme here. This was acceptable within strict bounds. However, there were children present. When a little boy dared to try out a newly-learned sex word, he was chased, screaming, across the property by his switch-bearing father.
On the way home, Bennedetto explained that nespola, in addition to being a fruit, was a substitute swear word, like ”darn” instead of ”damn.” I wasn’t sure if he was just being informative, or politely saying that Rob was swearing too much. We blamed the wine and dirty songs.
After all this holiday food and fun, I wasn’t ready to go back to the stresses of Piazza. Nella and Benedetto had deposited us at the hotel without any mention of further activities, so I figured we’d won out our welcome. I wanted to stay anyway. I rationalized that I would have a chance to do more research in the town’s books. The family who ran the hotel had become our friends too. They spoke English with perfect London accents; they’d grown up in London in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I tried not to let it remind me of Mick.
The last time I had ventured into the mists of Santa Margherita’s past, the town records had led me back to the 1700s. But I had never found a real connection to the present. There was only one lead left to investigate, Gaspare Rabito’s daughter, Angela. When Gaspare went to Argentina seeking argento, he returned to find his wife, my great- great-grandmother, dead. No one knows or remembers how she died, but I assume it was some romantic 1800’s type of death, such as diphtheria or faint nerves. The rest of the family sent their two sons to a horrible orphanage, not that there were any good orphanages in those days.
Gaspare rescued my great-grandfather, Papa Nick, and his brother, Uncle Andrew, from the orphanage, and then he remarried and had two daughters. Angela was one of them, and she was the last hope that I clung to. But I couldn’t find any records of her in the commune, city hall. Finally, it dawned on me – I needed to go to church.
I was praying for a breakthrough in my family history mystery, not going for mass. I waited for the church to open, but no one came. A suspicious neighbor looked at me sitting out there, and an old man appeared. He didn’t seem happy to help me, but he did anyway. He led me to the church records room and dug out the appropriate books. We found Angela’s baptism record. Then I asked him to look twenty years ahead. Again he balked and sighed. What the hell did he have to do that was more interesting than helping a crazy foreign woman rifle through the library? Soon we had located the next volume, and I learned the details of Angela’s marriage. The name of the lucky groom was Giuseppe Giambalvo. I was a lucky one that day too.
Afternoon closing time had crept up, so I went for a cappuccino at a bar called appropriately “Coffee House.” Nina and Tito Rabito were there. Small town. They introduced me to all their friends and called me “parenti,” family. I was flattered, even though l knew there was no evidence we were related. They figured we must be connected somehow, and why sweat the details?
The commune, city hall, opened after discanzo, and I stormed in, armed with new information. I had the name of the man my great- great-half-aunt married. Could this be the missing piece? Could I find my family? After searching all year, I had only two weeks left on the island. Could this two weeks be as momentous as last summer, when I’d first been led astray by Giovanni? Maybe I could make it right after all.
The counter woman was busy with the usual piles of Italian bureaucratic paperwork, but she agreed to spare one minute to look up information about Giuseppe Giambalvo. He married Angela in 1923. I asked if they had any children. She flipped pages. My minute was ticking away. I began to worry as she kept looking in the books, just grunting occasionally. Finally, after an eternity seemed to have passed, and several decades had flipped by in the book, she found him. Gioaccino Giambalvo, born in 1925. She pointed out the name, and I had to fight not to jump for joy.
“I know him,” she said flatly.
“What, you know him?!” I was incredulous that my search might come to its end so easily.
“Yes. Do you want me to call?”
“Si si si! He’s my relative!”
She actually knew my living relative. I couldn’t believe it. This Gioaccino Giambalvo was my family. We had found him. He was alive, and the clerk knew him. She called and said they’d be right over to pick me up.
I’d never waited so expectantly in all my life. I had a long time to savor the anticipation. They seemed to take forever. After half an hour, I finally called Rob at the hotel, and he had time to stroll over and meet me. Finally a woman named Catarina came with her brother, Giuseppe. Giuseppe looked familiar. They both looked confused. They had just gotten a bizarre call from the commune saying “please come pick up your American family.”
I shook their hands with a grin splitting my face.
“I met you in the café today. You are related to Nina and Tito Rabito.” Giuseppe said.
“No, we’re just friends,” I corrected him, “You and I, we are actually
related.” They looked skeptical, but they agreed to take us home to meet Gioaccino, their father. Part of the problem was that I had been looking for Rabitos, when I should have listened to the curse about the family having only girls. The Rabito name had been lost through marriage.
I didn’t think it was possible, but old Gioaccino looked even less excited to see me than his children had been.
“You’re too young to know my mother. You must be mistaken.” Clearly he didn’t understand how this research thing worked.
“I’m not mistaken! I’m 100% sure! I just saw the birth certificate.And the marriage certificate. Your mother was my great-grandfather’s half sister! Of course I couldn’t have known her, and I never even met Papa Nick, but my mother knew them. I know the stories. I’ve researched all the history!”
I spent all afternoon trying to convince him. Everyone he spoke of, I knew. He even showed me a picture he had in his collection of Papa Nick with my grandmother and Aunt Jo.
“That’s my grandmother! I knew her – I wasn’t too young to know her. That’s my Aunt Jo.” I pointed to Rob and myself. “We visited her before we came to Sicily.”
He still wasn’t buying it. This Sicilian skepticism ran deep. His stubbornness even began to make me doubt myself. But we had to be related! Why else would he have a picture of my grandmother? They had sent it from America. The more enthusiastic I became, the more doubtful they grew. Why did the one family who was actually mine have to second guess me, when all the other Rabitos embraced me as family? This island was so mixed up.
I asked if I could have copies of their photos. Catarina dismissed me with a laugh,
“My father is very possessive of his photos.”
This stonewalling was going to drive me crazy. After much friendly exertion, I finally managed to crack their defensive exterior. They started to warm up. Gioaccino brought out more photo albums. These featured family members who had emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1960’s, and others who’d gone to Venezuela.
I told him about all the Rabitos we had met who claimed us as family. He confirmed that none of them were my relatives. But he mentioned that another person we had befriended was related to me. That was Andrea Randazzo. Andrea had taken Mom, Aunt Kay, and me out to meet his aunt in December. She had moved me almost to tears with her resemblance to my grandmother. It turned out my gut feeling had been right all along! She was my grandmother’s first cousin. I couldn’t wait to tell Andrea. I couldn’t wait to call Mom and Aunt Kay.
I finally won Gioaccino over when I mentioned that my grandmother had been a nurse. That clinched it for him, as they had heard lots of stories of her nursing work. Although they finally accepted that we were family, it didn’t earn us an invitation for dinner. I didn’t mind. I left feeling high. I had found my family. I’d achieved my dream. God must have had a plan – all that horror in Piazza had driven me back to Santa Margherita, where I’d finally found our relatives. God sure had some strange plans, but they seemed to work. I should never have doubted the Creator of the Universe.
I was feeling so lucky that I decided to try Menfi again. The next day, I was still on a roll. I found some relatives of another aunt who had missed the boat to America. Catarina’s sister, Nicoletta, had stayed and married a man from Menfi. They never had children, but I met their gaggle of friendly great-nieces and -nephews. Sicily was really opening up to me. These relatives were in their 40’s, and one of their teenage sons thought it was so cool to have American family visiting. He kept offering us candy, and it felt rude to decline, so we coasted on a sugar high.
They remembered Poor Aunt Nicoletta. She was bubbly and fun and had always wanted kids, but she was never able to have any. I certainly hoped that wouldn’t be my story with Rob. I thought it best not to mention that she’d tried to steal my grandmother.
We women talked and talked, and it grew later and later. Rob and I worried we might have to hitch back to Santa Margherita that night. Finally we told them we had to go, and they dropped us off, in the dark, near the autostrada. It was scary enough in the daytime, now it was deadly. Fortunately the gods were still smiling, and we caught a safe ride back. No buses connected the towns of my ancestors – they were almost as isolated from each other as we Americans had become from Sicily.
I was in no rush to get back to Piazza Armerina, ever. But, unfortunately, all my stuff was there. Days passed, in Santa Margherita, with more homemade pizza and heart-warming hospitality at country houses. Andrea warmed up to the idea that we were actually blood relatives, and he yelled out, “more Coca Cola for my cousin, Carol!” We danced tarantella and had a great time.
We met Catarina and Giaoccino, one day, at the cemetery, and he proudly told us he was a metal artist and had fashioned the iron gates. It was beautiful work – he had that artistic streak my grandmother and cousins had inherited. He apologized for the newly-laid sidewalk leading up to the gates – some thoughtless shepherd had led his goats through the wet cement, which had preserved their hoof prints.
Giaoccino asked me to show him where Gaspare Rabito’s grave was, so I went right to it. He was finally impressed by my detective skills. He showed me where his mother, Angela Rabito, was buried. They didn’t look too strangely at me when I did a grave rubbing. They invited me over for pranza, where I enjoyed more stories of the family on this side of the ocean. Giaoccino said I was distantly related to Nella Rabito’s family. Now, with just days left on the island, I was making real progress.
Our escape to Santa Margherita was a godsend. Carol was making great leaps with her genealogy, and her newfound family was showing us the time of our lives. The kids wanted us to sign their scrapbooks, and I made a little drawing featuring the “Ponte di Brookolino,” the Brooklyn Bridge. I stretched it all the way across the ocean to connect Sicily with America. Everyone here had stories of relatives who had “gone to live in Brooklyn.”
At one party we met a cousin of Carol’s who happened to be a lawyer for the Mafia. But we didn’t see any suspicious characters in pin-striped suits and fedoras. One of the meal’s courses was buckets full of grilled silvery sardines. A beaming Andrea showed us his patch of fava beans next to the house – growing your own fava is a mark of pride on the island.
Trying our luck back in Menfi, I had more bittersweet memories of my time at the beach with Nikki. Carol dug up yet more relatives she’d overlooked the summer before. One sweet old lady told us of her brother who had fought for Mussolini, in North Africa, in World War II. He was captured and shipped all the way to Alabama to be housed in a POW camp. She said it was one of the best times of his life – he got to drink all the Coca Cola he wanted. Mussolini couldn’t top that.
Curious about the war, I asked our young guide if he had heard any other stories passed down from the elders. Germans certainly didn’t like it when the subject came up, but Italians were more open. Giuseppe didn’t know much, but he mentioned that local farmers were still sometimes killed by landmines laid during the war. He said the war ended sometime around “mille novecento cinquanta,” 1950, so his facts might have been suspect. Of course, with the destruction and poverty lingering after 1945, I could see how Italians might have felt the war hadn’t ended.
In the next days, we were whisked off to the seaside town of Sciacca, and then to the bustling city of Marsala. We saw cathedrals and art and history museums. I was excited to see an ancient Punic warship that the tourist guides talked about. I had planned to go there with Nikki until I got on her nerves and we aborted our trip. I was expecting a menacing Greek trireme, but the “ship” looked like an overturned section of rotted roof. I probably would have annoyed Nikki more with my disappointment about that.
I enjoyed the Arazi, or tapestry museum, more. It depicted Roman life as seen through medieval eyes. On our outings, Nella and Bennedetto Rabito were the first Sicilians to actually try to teach us some of their own mysterious language. I learned such important terms as “un gran incaniata,” which sounded to me like “a grand canyon.” It meant a steep hill, which was what their tiny Fiat was struggling to carry us up as they explained this. A very pragmatic language, Sicilian.
We were having a grand time, and I worried things might be too good to be true. I called back to Valle Perfetta and checked in with Lea. Relief filled me when I learned they hadn’t burned all our stuff. She actually seemed cordial and said, surprisingly, that Helmut was looking forward to our return! He hoped Carol could start babysitting for them as she had done with Carlo and Ulla. It sounded like it might not be an option, but a requirement of our continued residence.
After a week or so, we were ready to try our luck back in Piazza. We had a plan. Rather than hang around, in shame, as Helmut’s indentured servants, we would leave Sicily by the middle of May. That gave us two weeks to tie up loose ends and say our goodbyes. Carol had talked to a family she knew in France, and that would be our next destination. It was thrilling to have an escape plan, and it was also sad.
Chapter 17 – Better Late than Never
It was time to leave the Belice Valley of Agrigento, my ancestral land. I tried to get a good night’s sleep before our journey, but I couldn’t – my mind was awash with worry and anger about all that had gone down in Germanville. Rob and I bickered over it; he wasn’t half as hurt as I was. Of course I was the one who got suckered into writing the actual note to Helmut’s ex, so I got most of the blame. And Rob wasn’t hearing racial slurs against his pure white-bread background. He actually wanted to compensate Helmut for our time in his house by giving him a gift! Unbelievable!
In the morning we had our last espresso at Café Gatopardo in Santa Margherita. We caught a ride to the autostrada with one of the Rabitos we’d met in my mad search. He was so friendly and excited that we were relatives, I didn’t have the heart to tell him we weren’t.
He dropped us off outside of Sciacca, and soon a bus to Agrigento came rumbling by. We connected to a bus for Caltanisetta, and another one for the three-hour ride to Piazza Armerina. The long trip allowed plenty of time for my fears to grow. I didn’t know what to expect. Did the whole town still envision me wearing a scarlet J or yellow star for my shame?
We rang up to Giovanni’s, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me. I was cautious. I gave him the standard hello kisses on the cheeks, then went over to the kitchen and put in the video Aunt Kay had sent in a care package. I zoned out in front of the television, watching real American T.V.for a change. Giovanni, with all the wisdom of his 39 years, got into a deep discussion with Rob about growing old. Again, Rob forgave so much faster than I did. He never seemed to understand my pain.
Giovanni agreed to help me move out of Rob’s and back to Ulla’s. That was part of the escape plan. I just couldn’t face Germanville ever again. We drove up to Valle Perfetta, which was deceptively inviting with its green flower-speckled fields. I breathed a sigh of relief that we didn’t run into any neighbors. I hoped I would never see any of them again. Packing was easy, as we hadn’t even unpacked much in the first place. The hard part was carrying it all up the hill to the road. No wonder Rob had felt that moving a heavy bombola for the gas stove was such a big deal.
We stuffed Giovanni’s station wagon full – it felt like leaving for college all over again. Rob and I leaned against the car and hugged, watching as the sun cast late afternoon gold over the hills. Giovanni slouched against the hood and lit the inevitable cigarette. We reminisced, and then we left Rob behind as there wasn’t enough room at Ulla’s. Rob also insisted on his insane plan to say goodbye to everyone. Why was he cowering to these people who’d hurt me so much? Didn’t he care about me? The person he would spend the rest of his life with? Instead he worried about saving face with people he would never see again.
Giovanni and I got along great in the car, talking and laughing. We dropped by Ulla’s store to see if we really could bring everything over. She said it would be fine, and I could stay until I left the country. We had a little time before she’d be home so, being in Sicily, we detoured to Giovanni’s country house.
Just to keep it interesting, we went upstairs to where Rob had slept. We tried some acrobatic positions, which I knew he must have learned from some other woman. I had my guess as to which one – he had once let slip that a friend of his was a very flexible dancer. Life with the lone promiscuous wolf.
Ulla gave me a suspicious glance when we arrived at her house late. I lied and said I’d forgotten something. Giovanni blew my attempt at cover by shaking my hand and saying “good one.” Ulla laughed and, we knew she knew. She was just so accepting — it was amazing. Annabella was there too. She gave me a long bear hug. I was so relieved to still have a few friends left.
Carol drove off with Giovanni, and I stayed in Valle Perfetta one last day. I hoped to smooth things over with the neighbors a bit and meditate on my time there. As if warning us we were no longer welcome, a fierce storm blew through the Valle that night. Tiles shifted on the roof and blew onto the path below. I worried that the whole roof might fly off or collapse on me. The power flickered on and off as I tried to block out the howls with the radio. I made it through a sleep-deprived night and checked on the laundry I’d left hanging on the clothesline under the roof awning. I touched one sock to determine if it was still soaked. I wrenched my hand away in pain as it gave me a sharp electric shock. In the wind and rain, the house’s electric wires had come in contact with the clothesline. Branches were lying everywhere. I grabbed one to poke at my underwear and socks to free them from the wires. The place seemed ominously booby trapped now. I could almost imagine the ghostly voice from The Amityville Horror telling me “Get Out!!”
I replaced some of the roof tiles which hadn’t shattered, finished packing, and started my last long hike to town.
It wasn’t so bad being back in Piazza after all. I should have known the storm wouldn’t last. I met Rob in town the next day, and he told me the fine folks in Germanville didn’t want things to end badly. They suggested we come over for dinner or throw a party. But bad feelings bubbled up in my mind, and I wasn’t ready to reconcile. I just wanted to leave it all behind. How could I throw a festive party after all this? I had shared myself once with everyone, by throwing last fall’s Jewish New Year party, only to get burned. I couldn’t fathom partying with people I now detested.
Having Rob nag me to patch things up with the Germans was bad enough. The effort it took to pack and send all my things home, through the horrible Italian post office, made it worse. I managed to cram all the stuff I had accumulated during the year – books on Sicily, preserved foods, ceramics, and various trinkets – into five giant packages that strained the packing tape. The customer disservice agent who’d yelled at me for writing too much lost her mind when she saw my load of boxes. She threw up her arms and flatly refused to take them. ”Come back in the afternoon and bother someone else.”
So I tried again later. The frowning fellow at the desk was slightly friendlier, but still overwhelmed by my packages. He kept letting other customers cut ahead of me, as they supposedly had simpler transactions to make. He wasn’t very happy when I mentioned the morning woman had dumped this on him. I managed to stay calm by reading what everyone in my alma mater was doing – Mom had forwarded me the college alumni magazine. Oh look, Moonbeam made assistant VP at an environmental non-profit. Jasmin got married and moved to Kenya. Never again would I read one of those magazines so thoroughly. By the time the boxes were ready to go back to the US, on the slow boat no less, it had taken five hours. At UPS back in America, I had been able to send five packages in ten minutes. Although it was sad to be leaving the magical island, I was reminded that their post office would eventually drive me out anyway.
May brought summer heat and Sahara winds thick with desert sand. It was the infamous Sirocco wind, another omen from the sky.
Thinking I should check the stars, I called Aunt Kay and tapped into her mystical astrological knowledge. She told me not to worry about Germanville. She said, “Consider the source.” She wasn’t impressed with the dirty hippies and their toilet-less “shit hole” lifestyles.
But everyone in Piazza was saying we shouldn’t leave without some resolution. So, bravely, I hiked back toward Valle Perfetta with Rob.
We paid Artilio a visit. He was in good spirits, and he offered us his summer season dish again. The pasta sauce was filled with fennel and spinach and everything else green he could find. His comforting advice was that all the problems in Germanville were my fault. Not because of the note, but because I had refused his offer to live with him all year. He smiled mischievously. I laughed. This blame I could handle.
We talked to Veronika at Girasol. She accompanied us up to Germanville. Was she going to play the intermediary? The closer we got, the more nervous I became. We ran into Hilda’s husband, Kai, first, and he greeted me with two kisses on the cheeks. He seemed hurt that we hadn’t come for a party they’d had the night before. Hilda’s parents were in town, and her dad had told stories of the war. Right, like I would have loved to hear those Nazi stories? Were all the men in Sicily completely clueless about my feelings?
As we walked by their kids, Pia threw a plant at me and Georg kicked me. It was the same greeting they’d given me the first time I met them the summer before. I knew it wasn’t because of the falling out and all the recent gossip. It was just the usual bad parenting.
I wanted to talk to Hilda, face to face, and explain my side of the story. But she brushed us off, saying she was busy with her parents visiting. So I brooded outside our old love nest while Rob went to talk to Helmut. I wasn’t about to go that far in my efforts at reconciliation. I had never really talked to him before, so why bother now?
I sat at the scene of the hate crime. As I thought things over again, my anger flamed back to life. I had come out here to try to apologize and make things better, and Hilda didn’t even have time for me. They all seemed much more comfortable with passive aggression and indirectness.
Rob finally came back. He had only talked with Lea, because Helmut was gone again. It was always impossible to catch him, and even if he was home, he seemed too grumpy to talk to. That’s what had started this whole mess.
On our way back to town, we stopped at Hilda’s again, and I just went for it.
“Hil, I’m so sorry about the note.” It was now “the note” heard around the world.
“It’s over with, we already forgot about it. Just think next time.” That was her cold response.
“I just wish someone here had told me there was a problem with it instead of having to hear rumors that people called me a stingy Jew.”
“Rumors are stupid. Besides, you have to admit, Giovanni and Mick were just joking.”
It didn’t feel like a joke to me. Come to think of it, all year I’d heard jokes about Jews. “Jews came to a house looking for room to stay, and the resident responded, ’Sorry, but there’s no room in our oven.’” – as in the concentration camps ovens for burning people. If this was European humor, it was lost on me.
I wasn’t finished with Hilda yet. “But none of this would have happened if someone had just told us. We were here all day, and I had to hear about the whole problem from Giovanni and Mick in town.”
“I didn’t see you. I would have told you. I always tell people,” Hilda declared.
I was shocked to hear this, and I wondered if I should point out this blatant lie. She had definitely seen me. She had ignored me, but she’d hugged Rob to welcome him back. What was going on? Was history being rewritten? They were almost as bad as Holocaust deniers. As I stood there, paralyzed by my rage, Hilda changed the subject. She was treating me like it was all a ridiculous farce. I’d never felt so unacknowledged before. I was the crazy one, “making a big deal out of nothing.” I thought of my activist friends on the indigenous reservation who said, about the U.S. genocide of Native Americans, “No victim, no crime.”
Thankfully, we soon left. There was no closure. It only made things worse. On our walk back, I started to cry again. I felt so alone. No one knew how I felt. Not even Rob. I hated the way it had come between us. No one understood that it wasn’t a joke to me after six million people of my ethnicity had been killed by the Germans. Everyone wanted to have me throw a “Hurray, the Jews are dead, let’s joke about it” party and be done with the whole note controversy. They just wanted to shut me up.
When we got to Hannah and Dino’s, Hannah noticed my tear-streaked face. I told her how the “apology” went. She was shocked. She said at least I did my part. At least I was in the clear with her.
Rob and I walked all the way through town and out the other side, and we finally reached our new place to stay, Giovanni’s country house. There wasn’t enough room at Ulla’s for both of us, and Rob insisted on being with me. At least he was trying to be supportive. The fun days there with Nikki seemed like years ago. Now I felt like we were refugees, and I hated it. I just wanted to forget all that had happened, and all the horrible people involved.
Staying at Giovanni’s country place was a pleasant flashback. Seeing the mock-medieval architecture, hearing the hum of the crotchety water pump, and smelling the musty mattresses, I missed Nikki all over again. I thought I was over her. But we had plenty of other things to occupy our minds.
Carol didn’t want to see anyone from Valle Perfetta, and she didn’t approve of me going to make peace with them. But I felt bad, and I snuck out one day, with wine and pastries, to thank them for help and friendship throughout the year.
It didn’t go smoothly. I knocked cautiously at Hilda’s door and didn’t hear anything, so I let myself in, as I had often done before. This time I caught Hilda putting a towel on after getting out of the bathtub. Arrgh. She had a nice figure, though.
To try to make up for this new infraction, I tagged along with Kai to help with another chore. He was hauling logs from his property to the local lumber center. He hoped he could sell the wood, but the kid working there told him, “The only thing the boss pays for is pompetta.” Translation: blowjobs.
Lord Kai got in the kid’s face and suggested that they’d better pay him something for the trouble of bringing the load down here and back. This didn’t go over well, and the kid asked us why the hell we didn’t just go back to whatever country we came from. Kai matter-of-factly told him he lived here, but I was going home to America soon enough. As if the kid cared. He just looked at me like I was crazy and asked why anyone would possibly want to come to Sicily, when America was so much better. I just smiled and shrugged. Then I went back to Valle Perfetta with an irritated Kai.
A yellow haziness had been gathering in the sky for several days. At times it was so dense it blurred the sun, and cast the landscape in a dusky light. As we unloaded Kai’s trailer, he explained that this was the result of the Sirocco winds. Blowing in from North Africa in the spring, they brought fine sand and dust which clung to the air. It was said to be an ill omen, often bringing health problems and arousing passions, good and bad. It was an evil eye in the sky that no gypsy hand could protect against. It fit well with Carol’s fears of a springtime curse.
Kai suggested I stop by for dinner that night, as he was having the neighbors over. I said I doubted I could make it, as I’d have to get in touch with Carol. He shrugged and said well, another time would be O.K. too. I didn’t mention that I would never be able to talk Carol into it. As I was about to leave the Valle, Georg and Pia ran up to me crying, “Rop! Rop!” With a grin revealing his missing tooth, Georg shoved a bouquet of wildflowers they had picked into my arms. I just shook my head in disbelief. Hugs, kisses, and flowers for me, and kicks and criticisms for Carol.
When I stopped by Girasol, Veronika twisted my arm to throw the big going-away party everyone was pushing for. It would have been a nice idea under better circumstances. When I got to town, Giovanni said Carol was out with one of her motorcycle-driving boy-toys. Great. I worried she had figured out I had gone back to evil Germanville and was doing this to spite me. Or maybe she was making the farewell rounds of her old lovers and suitors. Either way, it was uncomfortable.
Our last week wasn’t entirely unpleasant, though. Giovanni borrowed his brother’s Jeep and drove me, Carol, and Annabella to an ancient site he thought we would enjoy. Called Montagna di Marzo, March Mountain, it was the ruins of a pre-Greek city. It rested on a hilltop that I had gazed upon, from across the floor of the valley, all year. We stopped at what he said was a “sacrificial altar,” where, like in Malta, we posed for goofy photos. Annabella snapped away as Giovanni and I held Carol down, pretending to defile her in various pagan ways.
As we bumped the Jeep up the unpaved road to the top, the scene started to look grim. It hadn’t been visible from Valle Perfetta, but here we could see the scars on the plundered hilltop. Giovanni explained that not much formal archeological digging had been done here. Though it was theoretically a protected site, locals had come up with bulldozers and plowed through the earth, hoping to uncover gold. What they left behind was a crushed and jumbled chapter of history, now lost forever. We kicked through the rubble and gazed down the hillside, through the waving grass, and across the valley. I mentally time-traveled, as I had so often done here, to robed traders and spear-wielding warriors traversing the plain. I sank into the sounds of lost tongues and noises of the market in the old city, as wind or spirits whistled around us.
I collected a few fragments of pottery amongst the broken bricks – the most interesting was a handle of something like a teacup. It was stained in the brown hue I recognized from history books on Etruscan art. I held this precious object in my hand, between thumb and fingers, envisioning its original owners doing the same about 3,000 years earlier. I felt a dizzy sense of vertigo, as if staring down a well 3,000 feet deep. I debated the ethics of bringing it with me. I didn’t want to be another plunderer. But if I didn’t, I would be leaving it for the bulldozers to crush into dust. I remembered a small statue that Pierro the beggar had once tried to sell me, claiming it was ancient and very valuable. Was it? Maybe I should have given him ten bucks for it just to turn it over to the local authorities. Were there any local authorities?
Carol and I made the rounds of our friends for goodbye meals. Marlies and Felippe had an ordinary going-away lunch for us, no guilt trips, no arm twisting, no spark of being involved in the gossip up the hill. Marlies provided the fish and eggs, and we made the batter and fried them up while she went to pick up Felipe from Parco Rosso. He was selling trinkets at a vendor’s table. At Parco Rosso I had first talked to Hilda about living amongst the Germans, seven long months ago. After eating, I presented Marlies and Felipe with a painting I had finished at Giovanni’s country castle. The oil paint was still bagnato, wet, I warned him. With a big smile he grabbed it carefully by the edges and hung it on a wall. I was honored.
Our final lunch at Artilio’s was emotional, as we all knew he might not be around the next time we came to Sicily. I think I actually saw tears in his eyes for the first time, and it was not from the irritating Sirocco dust.
I gave Artilio a painting too. It was one of the landscapes I’d done of blooming mandorlo trees. I figured he would appreciate a more traditional composition rather than my usual pop art. He praised us for coming to see him, unlike that cornuto Olondese, the “Dutch cuckold,” Fier, who had just disappeared from the island.
I had a farewell gifts for Annabella, too. I unveiled it at a pizza party at Giovanni’s castle. In another pleasant return to last summer, we tossed and cooked our own pizzas in the outdoor wood-fired brick oven. As Giovanni stoked the fire and chatted with Annabella, Carol and I prepared the toppings in the kitchen. We came out with trays overflowing with tempting prosciutto, piselli, uove, carcioffi, funghi, and other toppings. Giovanni thanked us, in typical fashion, by joking that we had taken so long Carol must have been giving me a hand job in the bathroom.
In the painting I’d made for Annabella, I’d tried to include elements of her stay in Sicily. It featured Greek temples from a wine bottle label, set on a hill overlooking cows from a milk carton. In the foreground a hand holding a mystical tarot-like Scopa card emerged from the subterranean fires of Etna. It was a veiled portent of things to come. Giovanni was jealous and said my renderings were quasi ezzato, almost exactly perfect.
In a stroke of good fortune, just before we left, I ran into an old crush, the girl in combat boots. She seemed as happy to see me as I was to see her. Finally, by the end of my stay here, I was sufficiently over my Anglo-Saxon hang-ups to give a beautiful girl a warm kiss on the cheeks to say hello. Her olive skin was soft and smelled like flowers.
Standing close, in our matching black boots, we eagerly talked. I could tell she was disappointed when I said I was heading home to America. I had never tried to get her phone number or pursue anything with her, since she always had this mysterious boyfriend at school in Catania. I should have known better, I suppose. That really didn’t stop people here. Maybe I had seen too many gangster movies – I didn’t want to wake up one night with a sack over my head, carried off by her boyfriend and his thug friends for a thrashing.
I looked into her shining brown eyes. She brushed a strand of hair from my face and tucked it tenderly behind my ear. We kissed on the cheeks again, and I briefly took her hands. “Ci vediamo dopo,” she said hopefully, we’ll see each other again.
I managed to push the drama of the note from my mind as we made our final arrangements to leave the country. In town, we said goodbye to the people we still considered friends. I was nervous about going to Bar Charlotte since the Germans always went there. But I found Marlies and Felipe instead, and they invited us to lunch. Marlies said it was great to have met us and we had brought “colors” into her life. Felipe joked that we were “stronzos,” shits for not coming over for lunch more often throughout the year. Time just slips away. I would’ve liked to, especially considering all the times I’d felt deserted at lunchtime. After all the times I was left standing in the street, I never wanted to hear the parting phrase “bon pranzo” again.
At the bank I exchanged my money for lira for the last time. I thanked the teller for his help all year during my “long vacation.” I visited some of my Lions Club friends and said goodbye to the dentist family who had hosted me the previous summer. I may have been bored to distraction, but they were good people.
Giovanni and I found ourselves alone at his apartment again. Rob was in Germanville, still trying to make peace, which pissed me off. Giovanni and I took advantage of the time alone, it could be our last.
The buzzer rang as we were finishing up. We ignored it. Giovanni looked out, a few minutes later, and saw Rob heading down the street into town.
“Mi dispiace,” Giovanni said, “I feel bad.” He wondered if he should pick Rob up.
“Why?” I asked.
“Usually I don’t care about the other man, but I really like Rob. He’s a friend.”
“I’m glad you became friends. Don’t worry about it. He’s into the competition thing.”
I tidied up and left to do more errands. I met Ettore, dressed in leather and still handsome. He added a new twist to the common greeting of two kisses on the cheeks. He put his hands on my waist, so it felt more like a real kiss. Interesting.
He whisked me off to the Wild West Bar on his motorcycle, and we started, innocently enough, eating sandwiches.The waitress was off duty. She was the slutty, skinny, frizzy-haired woman with whom Giovanni had suggested a ménage. She was making out with a soldier in the seat next to us. Ettore suggested we stop watching and follow their example. I was nervous. I liked him, but this was supposed to be a goodbye, not the beginning of a new adventure.
I decided to get out of the situation, and I had him bring me back to Giovanni’s. Rob had returned. He told me about his final mission to Valle Perfetta. I was hurt, but I tried to accept it. He was his own person, and he had to do what he felt was right. Lasciare pedere. Let it be lost.
The next day I ventured near Germanville, but I never crossed into it again. We visited Dino, Hannah, and Annabella, who had found a place nearby. We ate at Girasol one last time, as the moon crept up over the hill. Then I had to rush back to make phone calls to arrange the rest of our trip through Europe. Rob called it a Blitzkrieg tour, but I preferred “whirlwind.” I wasn’t ready for World War II jokes.
Veronika offered me a ride to town in their rickety car. Her children burst into tears as we said goodbye, because they thought Veronika was leaving them for America. Poor little sweethearts. We managed to put them at ease, but it was a heart-rending scene. They irked Mick, of course. The last words I heard from him were, “What the fuck.”
The next day Rob, Giovanni, Annabella, and I had a great time in the country. We went to another hippie’s house where a lama from Tibet was talking. I wasn’t really into it, but at least the meditation was relaxing.
We strolled in the countryside, and we ended up sitting under a mulberry tree, reminiscing and joking. It was really sweet – the four of us, old friends.
When the sun started fading, we headed back to the house where everyone was singing along with a guitar player. I talked to the lama. He spoke perfect English and had traveled in the U.S. We bid buona sera to all the guru’s followers and left.
We went back to Giovanni’s. He seemed to be sinking into depression.
“Why are you leaving?” he asked quietly.
I was touched that the superficial lupo was so sad to see me go. He thought I should stay in Sicily a few more weeks, rather than traveling Europe. I didn’t try to explain to him how much his Jewish comment had hurt me and my lingering pain over it and the whole note mess. Plus it took so much time and money to get to Europe that I wanted to see all my friends from my previous travels before I left. I had an intuition that this would be my last big overseas adventure for a long time.
After pizza and toasted marshmallows, Giovanni entertained us with tales of all the odd travelers and hippies who had passed through since the commune began. It must have been eye-opening for him to grow up near them in otherwise-isolated Sicily. He’d probably slept with a bunch of them too, but I tried not to focus on that. Something had pulled me to the right spot to lay my backpack, the summer before, in this land of weary travelers.
There was sadness in the air. While Rob was in the shower, Giovanni massaged my back. But I promised myself I’d be good from now on – we would never sleep together again.
The next day I visited Ulla. Her parents were there, so the house was filled with conversations in Danish. This place that had once seemed so comforting and familiar now felt very strange. We gave Emiliano a private puppet show to cheer him up, since he was feeling sick. After lunch, I gave them all big hugs and two-kiss goodbyes. Carlo was sweet and said they would miss us a lot. He took the necklace from his neck and attached it around mine. It was a figurine of an Indian Goddess of Prosperity. I was touched.
We said “Addio,” which felt sadly final compared to “ciao,” see you later. I fought back tears as Giovanni drove us away.
Back at his country house, Rob and I gathered our heavy backpacks.
While Rob was putting his stuff in the car, I leaned down to Giovanni who was picking up some of my stuff.
“Dame un bacio,” I said.
We French kissed in last-minute desperation. Then we hugged and just held each other. We were quiet and sad. Then he punctured the sentiment of the moment, whispering in my ear his usual joking “vai fungulo.”
We filled up Giovanni’s car with another college-worthy load of stuff. Another life chapter was ending, or beginning.
We got to Piazza Armerina’s bus plaza just as the bus pulled up. I ran inside the bar to buy our tickets. Giovanni helped put our stuff in the luggage compartment underneath, joking about how heavy it was. He and Rob hugged, and then Rob got on the bus.
I looked deep into Giovanni’s light brown eyes. I froze the moment in my mind, knowing it would be the last. Neither of us knew what to say at a moment like this.
I finally came out with, “Thank you for all the rides and help, and so much more …”
But I couldn’t say more for fear of crying. I touched his arm. The bus driver honked so I gave Giovanni a big hug and two kisses on the cheek and stepped on board. Giovanni stayed to watch us go, and we waved. I couldn’t hold back my tears any more — they crashed down as I watched him walk, bowlegged as always, back to his green station wagon. I couldn’t believe I had to say goodbye. I was surprised that I was so sad to leave him. We both waved until he was out of sight. Rob didn’t see me crying. I was silent and hid the tears under the dark Italian sunglasses I had bought the first week I arrived.
We passed the plaza where I’d bought them and the plaza with the winter market. Next we passed the bar where the frizzy-haired waitress was probably making out with some new guy. The old men in hunting caps who Ulla claimed were Mafia drifted by. Finally, we went under the monstrously ugly autostrada overpass. Goodbye, Piazza Armerina. Goodbye, my Sicilian life. I clandestinely wiped my face and got myself together. Rob and I began to talk. He was happy to leave for new adventures. He planned to see more family in other parts of Germany. We were splitting up for our trip, heading for different destinations. But this time we’d be safe – I’d be with friends in Northern Italy and Austria, not with Sicilian wolves. We would meet up again in France. Then we’d go back to Minnesota to live happily forever after.
We had one last goodbye, in Catania, the entrance port city where our whole Sicilian adventure had begun. I said goodbye to my spasamante Massimo at the train station bar where he worked. Giuseppe, Deborah, and Flaminio met us there, and they thought it quaint that I had befriended a lowly barista. I loved them, but their class consciousness was showing.
We ate pizza and were quieter than usual.
The train was coming. I kissed everyone goodbye on the cheeks. Flamino and Deborah helped load our stuff on the train. We gave them all another round of kisses, and it was hard to say goodbye to such sweet friends. We stuck our heads out the window to talk until the train whistle blew. They waved handkerchiefs, showing us the traditional way to say goodbye. When the train took off, the whole platform cheered for their loved ones. It was a communal event, like Europeans clapping when a pilot brings his plane safely to the ground. I had never heard such partings at a train station before, it seemed a coincidence that it happened on our last train ride in Sicily. I bid farewell to Sicilia and stayed awake long enough to see the moon rise over the sea. Then I watched the island’s lights fade as we drifted away on the ferry. Sicilia was gone now. Addio Sicilia.
Our departure from Piazza was quiet. No crowd of friends tearfully hugged us and begged us to stay. It was just the usual wait for a bus in the overcast town square. Giovanni was there, and I could tell he — at least — would miss us. He felt trapped by his life in Sicily, but with his family ties he would never leave. Who could beat a free apartment, even if it was in the same building as one’s mother and siblings? He had a decent job, and it seemed that only real economic or political desperation caused people to migrate.
Giovanni mused wistfully about what great opportunities lay ahead of us, back in the mystical land of America. He would miss the horizons that his first American girlfriend had opened up for him. He might have married her. Might have moved to America and had the child he’d always thought he wanted “someday.” But his roots in Sicily were too deep.
I was grateful I had won, I had gotten Carol back. But I was also thankful for Giovanni’s help over the year, all the rides, places to stay, and advice on women from the world-wizened ”Lupo Solitario.” We might not have left on the best of terms with all of the Piazza community, but who were we to question fate? If not for the big blow-up, we wouldn’t have made it back to Santa Margherita di Belice. We never would have achieved Carol’s dream of finding her true family.
Our Catanian friends treated us to the going-away spectacle we had missed in Piazza. Giuseppe, Deborah, and Flaminio took us out for dinner then gave us an emotional send-off. They yelled and waved, gestured with handkerchiefs, and ran after the train until they reached the end of the platform and could go no further. We took our seats to the click-clack and sway of the rails. I tried to gaze into Carol’s eyes but was blocked by the shield of her dark glasses. We each looked inward instead, turning over the lessons of our year, staring silently across the sea.
** Carol **
I always find it ironic that I went to Sicily to find my Italian roots but came back feeling much more in touch with my Jewish ancestors on my dad’s side. I also have an optimistic faith that everything happens for a reason and the whole tragedy got me what I really wanted – to find my long lost ancestors.
A few years later we returned and saw all the main characters again. I even hugged some of them from Germanville and instantly forgave them. I don’t know how it worked – time and lots of talking about it in the states with other Jewish people.
Just like I always wanted, we stayed with family in Agrigento. My aunt Kay has even gone back a few times and once for a wedding. They think of us as family too and called on Facebook once when they heard of wildfires in California and worried for Kay’s survival.
I learned a lot about Sicily and realized I love having that in my background but I am American through and through. My ancestors choose to leave and start anew somewhere. I do the same. Take risks. Go somewhere unfamiliar. I also have the values and mannerisms of every other American. I’ll always love Sicily and now my children hear stories of our adventures there and are curious to visit themselves. Now I have many friends and family to tell them to go say “ciao” to.