I was so excited to get home to Sicily. Our last day in Rome I was up early, showering and putting on my new lacy red underwear. I needed it for New Year’s – only in Italy would undergarments be good luck charms. I was hoping to see my lovers that day.
That plan was ruined by a strike. Aunt Kay, Mom and I arrived at the airport expecting a half-hour trip to Sicily. Instead the clerk politely informed us that there were no airplanes. Aunt Kay didn’t take this labor-rights concept very well and got pissed beyond belief. Mom and I decided to take an all-night train since it didn’t look like the strike would end before Christmas. But Kay didn’t do trains, especially all-night ones.
There were no sleeper cars available. Mom and I slept fine on the train, lulled by the repetitive click-clack of the wheels. Aunt Kay was up all night, miserable. She said the two most awful days in her life were when she learned she had breast cancer and staying up all night in an Italian train.
I woke as the train lurched onto the ferry. It had been an ordeal, but I was finally getting back to Sicily. I went up to the deck, turning my back to Calabria to see the lights of Messina and my island’s coast. Maybe a bridge to Sicily would drain away the island’s aloof mystique.
Mom accompanied me to the deck. A guy named Leo proclaimed himself a tour guide and began pointing out points of interest along the Sicilian shoreline. He also made sure to touch my arm each time he invented a tourist site. I wasn’t even back on the island yet, and the men had their hands all over me.
For a month I hadn’t even gotten to flirt. All those five star hotels kept us distant from most people but the waiters and others we met never batted an eye at me, another foreign tourist enjoying the beauty of Italy. Sicily sees fewer tourists, mostly from Germany, and less still from the states (except by the Navy base near Catania). Now the island was oozing horny men the way Etna spits smoke.
After breathing in the moon, sea, stars, and Sicilian air, I drifted back to sleep for a bit. I awoke to catch the sun rising from the hills and sea. We learned that this trip would take even longer than we’d expected, because we needed to wait two more hours for the bus to Piazza Armerina. Since seeing my spasamantes was foremost in my mind, I called my waiter friend, Massimo, and he rushed right over. He was sweet, chatting us up as we ate breakfast in the bus station bar. He must’ve known how to work a family, because Aunt Kay soon whispered to me that I should marry him. It didn’t hurt that he’d told her she didn’t look a day over 35. Massimo even helped lift her heavy floral-patterned bags onto the bus. It was my first time seeing a Sicilian trying to impress the parental units. Odd.
As we approached Piazza Armerina, the landmarks became familiar. Somehow I wasn’t as excited as I’d thought I would be. Aunt Kay was not happy to roll her bags three blocks to the hotel where the Lions had hosted me that summer. It was the only hotel I knew in town, and she found it dirty, not up to her standards. There was such a huge gulf between us and how we traveled. I cringed to imagine her impressions of Rob’s dusty home and fly-filled Girasol.
My great-grandmother, Catarina, had gotten fed up with Papa Nick. She was tired of the abuse, the death threats, and the cheating. She left him and went to live with relatives. But Papa Nick promised to change and managed to sweet talk her into coming back. He did behave better, at least for a while.
I hoped Giovanni might treat me better now, and my first course of action was to march off to his lupo lair. I’d dropped my stuff at the hotel, washed up, and put on new clothes free of train dirt. I found him and Annabella joking around in Italian, and I felt left out. He seemed underwhelmed by my return. Luckily, lots of letters had accumulated for me, so I distracted myself with those. One depressed me. My cousin had just gotten married and sent me photos of the wedding I had missed. She looked so beautiful, so together. She had it all. A nice husband. A stable life.
Annabella left to run errands. I told Giovanni the new rules. After talking with Aunt Kay all month, I had gotten my womanly self-esteem back. Rule One: No glove, no love. Rule Two: No talking about beautiful women in front of me. Rule Three: No more tempting me with baby-making ideas. Giovanni didn’t react well. He just said, “In my country, we have freedom of speech.”
I sighed, exasperated. He didn’t understand how bad he made me feel when he talked about all the beautiful, skinny women in Italy. I wanted to feel special. His handful of other lovers and his insults weren’t helping. When I tried to tell him my needs, he joked around, refusing to take me seriously.
The phone rang. I took the opportunity to leave without saying goodbye. The air was cold. At least I got a warm welcome home from Carlo when I visited the jewelry shop. He seemed truly glad to see me back. Maybe I wasn’t as much of a pest in his household as I had feared. He said the kids had really missed me.
Breakfast was at Fier’s again, and then we descended on Artilio’s for lunch. I was supposed to babysit for Mick and Veronika while they performed in Cefalu, but when we passed Girasol, Mick said it was off. He growled that he’d probably never work with Veronika again. We shrugged and headed on.
After a satisfying meal and contorted gossip at Artilio’s, I took Fier to see what I had done at Oscar’s. He hadn’t seen the place before, and he joked that I now knew more about the countryside than he did. Feeling good, I agreed to head into town with him although a light drizzle had begun. I liked the idea of sitting in a bar, drinking coffee, feeling warm, watching the rain, and doing some writing like an urban sophisticate. Plus, Carol was supposed to be back this weekend.
Back at the hotel I found Rob waiting for me. I gave him the biggest kiss that lobby had ever seen. We talked and talked about what we had done in the past month. I told him he had to see Rome, Florence, and Venice before we left Italy.
He was sweet enough to wait upstairs in my room, enjoying the shower I’m sure, as Aunt Kay, Mom, and I dined with the Lion’s Club. They held their banquets in that hotel all summer, and now it was time for a Christmas dinner. It was nice to see the Lion’s Club families again. I was the only foreigner left from the summer exchange, and they felt proud that I had chosen to stay in their city. I was amazed as they handed out ceramic gifts to everyone attending, even us. I thought such generosity was only for summer tourists.
After dinner, I brought Rob some leftovers. We addressed our other hunger by making out as Mom slept in the next bed. I was so happy to cuddle with him. I knew now I wanted him and only him.
In the morning, Aunt Kay had had enough of the hotel. The bathroom was too dirty, and there was no TV or room service. Maybe the Lions had only seen the banquet hall and not the rooms, so I asked around and learned there was another hotel just outside of town. That made her feel a little better, even if she had to re-arrange their lobby furniture to make it more appealing. She had an interior designer’s eye for feng-shui.
Rob helped us move into the new hotel, and then he walked with us to the old quarter and the cathedral. We had done this tourist routine several times in Piazza, first when we arrived, then with Nikki, and now for what would be the last time.
That night we visited the town’s nativity scene. It was just a makeshift barn, waiting for a Mary and Joseph. One of the organizers heard us speaking English and asked us how long we’d be in town. We told him we’d be there until May. Then he asked if I would play Mary and Rob would be Joseph. I was in shock – me a virgin? The virgin? Here in Sicily where I’d had the biggest sexual awakening in my life? I said sure.
The organizer, Armando, was a sweet fellow who lived across the street from the crèche. He brought us home where his young wife took our measurements to make our outfits. Apparently none of the Sicilians wanted to do the re-enactments. Armando was so relieved to find someone that he treated us all to drinks at the bar on the corner.
Mom got drunk, and Kay escorted her back to the hotel. Rob and I decided to spend the night alone in his country pad. The walk was chilly, but we stayed close to keep warm.
Fier said he needed to see a priest at the cathedral, which I thought was odd since he was Jewish. But I tagged along, on my way to find Carol. It turned out Fier was asking the priest for alms allocated for the poor. Fier’s mission failed, and on top of that the priest thought I was Fier’s girlfriend. Lovely. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about being molested by priests around here.
I joined Fier at Bar Charlotte. He scanned the newspaper with a scowl. “Ah ha!” He jabbed the newspaper with a bony finger almost poking a hole through it. The article confirmed what he’d told me: a world crisis was brewing. It involved organized crime, international arms dealers, and the Pope. Maybe Fier was looking for anything to incriminate that stingy old priest and the Church. He counseled that if I had any money, I should buy gold. I tried not to smile as I nodded at him in grave seriousness.
I made my escape from him and headed over to Carol’s hotel. I saw her coming down the stairs into the lobby. She was a transcendent vision to me, radiating her usual energy, her curves accentuated by a tight pink Roman sweater.
She met me with a big smile, kiss, and hug.
“Rob! You survived being all alone out in the country!” Then in a lower voice and with a theatrical grimace, she added, “Mom and Aunt Kay are driving me CRAZY!!!”
We laughed until Carol’s aunt, Kay, and mother, Marilyn, came down as well. They greeted me warmly. I had known Marilyn, in Maryland, for several years. The first time she’d met me, I had been crashed on Carol’s floor along with some other friends. My long blond hair was on the pillow, and she assumed I was Carol’s friend Ami. But when she saw my manly legs, she knew something was amiss. From then on, Marilyn called me “Hairy Ami.” I took it in stride.
Marilyn was a stereotypical outgoing Italian-American mother, raised in Brooklyn and still with a trace of that abrasive accent. We appreciated each other’s storytelling and sense of humor. Her tourist garb of designer holiday sweats made me smile.
Carol introduced me to the more elegantly dressed Kay, who I enjoyed calling “Aunt Kay” just as Carol did. She had been living in Las Vegas and working in real estate and reiki energy massage. Kay had several ex-husbands but no kids, and she enjoyed spending her money on the finer things. She didn’t hesitate to tell us the intimate details of her recent facelift, while Marilyn rolled her eyes. The sisters didn’t get along that smoothly. Carol seemed to have reached the end of her rope from mediating between the two of them, as well as between them and the Italians.
We caught up with a Christmas procession, ending at a nativity scene near the canali. I was speechless when Carol signed us up to play Mary and Joseph! Not that my protests could possibly have overridden her enthusiasm. After the crèche organizer thanked us with drinks, Carol was ready for a respite from the family.
Rob and I headed out of town under the gaze of the moon.
“I’ve been thinking a lot on my trip,” I began.
“Oh, is that all you did?”
“You’re so cute.”
I kissed him. “But seriously, Giovanni has become boring. I just want to be with you. I mean a relationship has to grow or die. There’s no growth with Giovanni. But with you … I’ve always liked you. But I just have to take it one day at a time.”
“No matter what happens, Carol, I’ll always be attracted to you. All I know is that I’m so happy when I’m with you. You’re so special to me. I just feel like crying for joy being with you right now. I don’t know. I love you.”
I almost cried tears of joy myself. I couldn’t believe he’d told me he loved me. He had never said it before. We had barely gotten together before we left for Europe, and I’d told myself I had to make him say it. I had been in love with him since I was 18. This was a dream come true. I looked up from our embrace and saw the whole of Piazza Armerina lit up below us. It was a beautiful sight at a beautiful moment.
On our moonlit stroll, I felt a surge of feelings for Carol. I stopped and kissed her, then buried my face in her long hair. I told her how much she meant to me, that I respected her courage in life and loved creating this adventure in Sicily together. She seemed pleased, if a little wary.
At Girasol we found Fier house sitting. Mick had convinced Veronika to perform in Cefalu after all, and they had been looking for me so they could ask me to babysit. I hoped they weren’t too mad.
We had a nice chat with Fier, but he burst our bubble a bit. He said the crèche group had been asking everyone in town to be the holy couple, but we were the only suckers who’d agreed to it. Carol said, “Maybe that’s why the crèche is right across from that big hotel, so they can pounce on gullible foreigners every year.” She was still looking forward to the performance. We thanked Fier for the tea and news and headed on. I had followed Carol to Sicily, and now she was following me to my little hovel in the hills.
My euphoria was short-lived, however. When I returned Carol to the hotel the next day, I saw Marinella in the lobby. My grunge-girl Doc Martens crush from a bus trip to Catania of few weeks ago was alone, and Carol had gone upstairs. I froze. The moment of opportunity passed, as a couple of slicked-back local guys showed up promptly to monopolize her. Carol returned to herd me along on our errands. I gave Marinella a meek wave as we left the hotel, and she returned a beautiful smile. I found the strength, finally, to seize the moment and say something. I told Carol I’d catch up with her in a minute. She looked at me for a moment, eyebrows raised, before she left.
I said ciao. Marinella was with her boyfriend, but she was still friendly. I was thrilled to catch up with her for a couple of minutes, and then we parted awkwardly. I kicked myself for not taking the opportunity to give her the traditional two-cheeked kiss. Well, at least I’d said something. Maybe I’d run into her again, without the dude around. I started feeling twinges of guilt about the amorous things I’d said to Carol the night before. Could I ever be satisfied with “settling down” with one woman? Would I have to give up on my Mick Jagger dreams?
As I’d feared, Carol started in again with somber talk about our relationship. She put it this way: when guys hit on her, should she say she had a ragazzo, a boyfriend? My blunt answer was, “why?” She was silent. Then she angrily burst out that she felt used. I thought about calling her a hypocrite. In a letter from her recent trip, she’d swor she was going to stop thinking about babies and marriage and stop scaring guys off with all that talk. I guess that didn’t apply to me.
“You know, it’ll be easier for me to find a guy than for you to find a girl.” She played on my fears.” We’ve had too many ups and downs, I’m tired of it. This could be our last chance to stay together.”
It reminded me of the year before when we were dating in Minnesota. She said if I didn’t come to Europe with her, I might lose her. So I came, but I lost her to Giovanni anyway! I didn’t know what to think anymore. But as much as I tormented myself, it seemed that all these starts and stops in our relationship, over the years, just didn’t bother me as much as they did her. Did that mean she wasn’t as important to me as I was to her? If I told her that honestly that I just felt like we should be friends, would I be making the biggest mistake of my life? I couldn’t decide if I was just commitment-phobic or really not in love with her. It was awful. I tried to envision how I would feel someday if she ended up marrying someone else and having his kids.
Fortunately, we were soon distracted from these painful thoughts. Carol had engaged us in the arduous task of shepherding her family to see my humble country abode.
We should have hired a cab.
The elders were fine, on the uphill hike, for the first few kilometers. The obstacle course of dirt roads, barbed wire, and rock climbing soon became too much for Aunt Kay. We somehow made it to Rob’s, but she refused to walk back. She hadn’t approved of the dirt floor or the marijuana plants when we stopped in at Girasol. And she thought Rob needed some serious lessons in housekeeping. I just thought it was great that he served us salad and pasta.
Aunt Kay refused to use Rob’s hole in the ground. He brought her over to Helmut’s so she could use a real toilet. He gloated at having the only one in the community.
Rob drove the matriarchs of my family back to the hotel, borrowing Hilda’s car. We didn’t tell them it was his first time actually driving in Italy. I stayed in his cabin-like house, making sure the fire didn’t die. But in a metaphoric way it already had. I had been shocked, that morning, to find out that after all his proclamations of love, Rob wanted to keep the status quo. He was just getting into the idea of playing the field. I told him I was tired of it. He sighed that, once again, we were out of sync.
When he got back we didn’t really resolve anything, and we just went to bed. I wanted to cry. I felt stupid for ruining everything I’d had, just for a superficial playboy like Giovanni. I felt like a slut since everyone wanted me for sex but not as a girlfriend.
The next morning, I took the long walk back to town alone. It gave me more time to think, and I was able to regain some mental balance after this rollercoaster. I realized I hadn’t necessarily ruined everything by sleeping with Giovanni. Rob just had a deathly fear of commitment, and deep down I had always known that. I’d have to let him be free, as he had been gracious enough to do for me over the past few months.
Carol got up, dressed, and left without a word. That wasn’t a good sign. The air in my house was thick with tension. I made a fire to keep out the physical chill. I lay in bed most of the day. It was dark and rainy out, a good excuse to stay home and sulk. worried that a life fooling around with lots of women might not compensate for the love of one. Would I end up old and bitter like Giovanni, as Carol had predicted?
The next afternoon Hilda told me she had seen Carol in town and Carol wanted to talk. I felt hopeful. On the way to town, riding with Hilda, I sang Christmas carols with Georg and Pia. They had learned “Jingle Bells” at school, and they howled with laughter when I taught them the “Batman Smells” version.
With Christmas approaching, the Virgin Mary was busy. Every night found her strolling around a new part of town. Her statue was carried at the center of processions, often accompanied by a band and culminating in fireworks. I was busy, too, pacing around with my racing thoughts about Rob and me. Would our destiny of true love ever be realized?
A car pulled up behind me. It was Rob’s pal, the cute leather jacket guy from the grocery store. I jumped in with him and his friends, and he drove out to the country. They were going to feed some horses, but I never saw any horses.
Instead we drove out of town about a mile, they stopped on a lonely dusty road crowded with olive trees. His friend walked down the road, supposedly to fed the beasts while leather jacket guy said something about making a cigarette. I had a feeling he meant a joint. I was right. I sat in the car and watched him roll and pack the marijuana into a spinelli. We passed it around, but I couldn’t take much, I kept coughing.
On the drive back, I was unusually quiet. If I tried to speak Italian while high, it came out mutilated. Back in Piazza they offered me a drink at the bar where the ménage a trois woman worked. He knew her too, and I wondered just how well. I wondered why she had told Giovanni I wasn’t her type. Was I too big boned for her bony body to bone?
I sat on a stool, and leather guy patted my inner calf for a moment. Every time he leaned in close or touched me, I wondered if he liked me. I should have known. I’m an American girl known for unorthodox behavior — of course I interest him! After we left the bar, we drove around listening to ‘60s music, blues, funk, and Dire Straits, of all things. The Italians kept saying Italian music sucked, and they preferred classic rock to the Euro pop the teenagers liked. I was quiet and happy, just listening and looking at the sunset darkening the green hills.
We drove all the way to Enna, capital of the province, where, for some reason, Scottish bag pipers were playing Christmas carols. Aside from the Virgin processions, there were few decorations or other signs of Christmas. Unlike in America, I didn’t see the overzealous push to buy and be happy. We had only seen one Santa Claus, and that was in Rome. He was skinny, looked depressed, and smoked a cigarette.
As we returned to the car, someone started lighting a firework right in front of us. I stopped so I wouldn’t get burned. My suitor bumped into me, and I liked the way he grabbed my waist as he braced himself. We drove back quietly. He asked what I was going to do – eat? I wasn’t hungry. He shrugged and said he had to feed his dog, and he brought me to the hotel. We could do something later. Of course there’s nothing to do later in Piazza Armerina, except …
Parked outside the hotel, he said only people who have “ragazzas” have something to do. I knew what he meant. I took the chance to ask if he had a girlfriend, and he said no, but he could always find someone to “pasare il tempo.” “Andare a letto,” go to bed, he clarified. I didn’t respond. All the men here were so open about their love lives. Or, more accurately, their sex lives. They seemed to get laid a lot but have no girlfriends. Maybe Giovanni wasn’t so abnormal after all.
I wasn’t impressed with his “you’re not hungry, and there’s nothing else to do, so goodbye.” I left his car, flabbergasted. I didn’t have much time to think, because Mom and Aunt Kay spied me and said I was urgently needed at the nativity scene. A virgin crisis.
The mayor was giving a speech. I was astonished when he pointed me out in the crowd and called me up on the stage.
“This is our Virgin Mary for tomorrow.” He waved me over to the microphone. I was terrified. Me talk? In marijuana- butchered Italian? To all these devout people who, ironically, saw me as the embodiment of the wholesome Virgin?
I squeaked out a speech about loving Piazza Armerina and being honored to be their virgin for Christmas Eve.
“I’ve never been Mary before, because we don’t have such a beautiful “festa” in the US.”
The crowd clapped enthusiastically. Buoyed by this response, I was ready to talk forever. But either my Italian was terrible, they noticed I was high, or they feared I’d take too much time away from the politicians. The dignitaries ushered me off, with thanks, and grabbed back the mic.
I couldn’t believe I was a stoned, slutty Mary! They needed a better screening policy.
Christmas Eve finally cast its reddening glow on the Piazza hills. Armando, from the crèche committee, picked us up at the hotel, and Rob and I put on our costumes at his apartment. Armando and his wife were old fashioned Sicilians. They’d met when she was thirteen and he eighteen and married as soon as possible.
In our costumes, Rob looked exactly like Joseph. But I looked like a nun. We went outside and past the eagerly waiting crowd. I became nervous. I didn’t see any familiar faces except for Mom and Aunt Kay, who were snapping away with their cameras. We went across the street and met the third member of our party, the donkey. I had to get onto him side saddle. The shiny fabric of the costume was slippery, and I kept sliding off the animal’s back. I was terrified I’d tumble into the street and get hit by a car. I grabbed onto Armando and held his shoulders in a death grip. I started laughing from fear, nervousness, and the ridiculousness of the whole thing. It was not a holy entrance. But at least, this time, I wasn’t high.
Luckily the donkey ride was soon over. Mother Mary herself must have intervened, because they actually stopped traffic as we crossed the street. I managed not to fall as I dismounted, and I took a seat in the barn looking as virginal and saintly as possible. I placed my hand on the stuffed Jesus doll in the hay and tried to get comfortable on the wobbly stool they provided. Using my theatrical skills, I summoned up Mary, feeling close to her since I was probably the only Jewish foreign woman in this town.
I heard funny noises and turned around to see the donkey and a cow eating hay. I held back my laughter so all the townspeople could take pictures. I’m not sure if anyone was praying to me. That would have been too much. I was no virgin to be worshipped. Though I might fit as the patron saint of crazy travel plans.
Rob stood next to me, looking strong and wise. The band played and fireworks went off, scaring our donkey, who almost kicked a hole in the barn and bolted. This whole show really could have been thought through better. They were only able to get drug-addled foreign actors, the fabric was too slippery, and the donkey was easily spooked. But these were Italians, planning was not in their blood. Maybe they trusted that their faith would somehow carry them through, as it had for centuries.
It started to rain, so the show wrapped up early. We greeted people and scarfed down the cookies they handed out. I asked Armando’s wife to bring Mom and Aunt Kay back to the hotel, since they were old and tired. Rob and I stood in the drizzle, waiting to see if we could scam a Christmas Eve meal. Everyone seemed to think their in-laws would kill them if they brought us home. What was so wrong with bringing the holy couple home for a visit?
We walked the town looking for an open bar. No luck. We saw Giovanni’s lights on, so I thought we could at least hang out there. I rang and talked to him through the intercom.
“Buon Natale. Can we come up?”
“I’ll be right down.”
“We can come up.” “Stay there. I’ll be right down.”
That was suspicious. He came right down as he’d promised.
“Hey Giovanni. Can we come up for awhile? It’s Christmas Eve.”
“No. I have some friends coming over.” “But we have nowhere to go.”
“These are special friends, stupida.”
I just turned around coldly and said “ciao.“
I wished I had said “vai fongulo,” fuck off. I couldn’t believe he was fucking some woman on Christmas Eve – maybe even more than one – when he had sworn to me that it’s the one day a year when he hangs out with his family. I was livid and hurt. Rob wouldn’t even take me back. I hated my life and how I’d absolutely messed everything up.
Christmas Eve didn’t feel promising. Carol had wanted me to meet her at the hotel in the morning. But it was drizzling out, and I didn’t feel like a wet slog to town for more drama. I ate a leisurely breakfast with Fier, slowly building motivation to go. On the way, I poked my head in at Hilda’s to wish them a buon natale. Helmut’s wife, Lea, was there.
Lea wanted me to return the saw I had borrowed and she made a semi-playful gesture as if to strangle me. She said she’d stop by and get it herself, which would have saved me time. But my place was such a mess I wasn’t even sure she could find it. So I headed home to get it, and to tidy up a bit in case anybody did look in. I finally made it out of Valle Perfetta and stopped in at Girasol. Drying laundry was hanging everywhere, and I peeked through the sheets to wish them a Merry Christmas. It was a full house, with Mick, Veronika, Sabine, Hans, and some friends all getting ready for a performance trip. I excused myself from the chaos as quickly as I could and headed on. I managed to get to the hotel by noon and opened presents with Carol’s family. They had gotten me extra tea cups, oven mitts, and a pan and broom. I did need all those things but felt insulted that they found shortcomings in my house. But I knew it was true.
After lunch, Carol’s leather jacket friend showed up to take them to the Roman mosaics. Carol off-handedly mentioned he had taken her on a lovely trip to Enna the day before. She was trying to make me jealous. But she let me take a nap on her comfy hotel bed while they were out, so I wasn’t too grumpy.
That evening, when the Catholic group picked us up to star in the nativity scene, there wasn’t enough room in the car. Aunt Kay accepted one fellow’s offer to sit on his lap, despite our advice to take a cab. Once we were underway, naturally, he started groping her. “How do you say stop?!” she asked. Carol and I were horrified, though it was amusingly predictable. But from a religious group!
We got outfitted at Armando’s family’s apartment. They spray-painted a Santa beard gold to match my hair. They did this indoors and didn’t seem bothered by the fumes, but I was suffocating. I debated whether it would be rude to ask them to open a window. I decided to suck it up and suck in fumes. I tried to convince myself I’d get a buzz instead of brain damage.
Then we had another long wait that only Sicilians could orchestrate. We didn’t really know these people and tried to find things to talk about. They showed us their wedding album, filled with more people we’d never met. In desperation, they mentioned that they were distant cousins of a shepherd we might know.
No one even treated us to dinner. Things didn’t improve when we headed, by default, to Giovanni’s. After he rebuffed us due to “family obligations,” Carol walked away in silence. That was never a good sign from the Babbling Brook. When I’d watched Schindler’s List with her, back in Minnesota, her deep disgust at the Holocaust had turned to deep frustration with our relationship. It was the same now. She was sure Giovanni had another woman stashed up there. Carol took us into a random hotel, where she ran into the women’s bathroom and cried for almost an hour. What was I supposed to do? Wait for her in the lobby? Go in to comfort her? Crap. I passed the time in the lounge and the lobby, watching crowds of happy, well-dressed people come and go.
When Carol finally emerged, her face red and wet, we continued our silent walk. We stopped near the park where, in the hopeful sunny days of August, she had first told me about her affair with Giovanni. We stopped at a railing overlooking the old section of town. The colored Christmas lights hanging from balconies throughout town were entrancing. I wanted to lose myself in their beauty, and I let my mind drift away with the cheery Christmas music wafting from nearby apartments. But I couldn’t escape our harsh reality. I tried to talk, but only idiocies come out. Stupid, trite, predictable, cowardly rationalizations and excuses. Carol still didn’t speak. We stood there for what seemed like hours. I prepared myself to see the light of sunrise glowing over the hills. I wondered if I could keep my feet from freezing by wiggling my toes inside the icebox of my steel-toed boots.
After an eternity, Carol suggested we head to the cathedral. It was almost midnight, but there were still plenty of seats. People held candles, and I jealously watched the flames dance and wished I could use one to defrost my feet.
In the fall, I’d felt like a dork for wearing long underwear in the Mediterranean, but now I was saying prayers of gratitude. When the mass started and we sat down, I took my feet out of my boots and put my gloves on them. I didn’t care what anyone thought. I survived the mass, partly because there were many cute girls to look at. But I felt I should ask Carol to be my girlfriend, my ragazza, if it really meant that much to her. I felt bad that Giovanni was being such a dick to her, and I wanted her to be happy. Besides, girls are only interested in you when you already have a girlfriend. And Carol has expressed interest in a threesome. I wasn’t quite sure it was the right decision, but I had to do something. We could work out the details later.
As I walked to Midnight Mass, I intermittently burst into tears. I hated myself for ruining everything with Rob to be with someone as self-centered as Giovanni. I was pissed at Sicily for deserting me on Christmas Eve and depressed that the crèche show was a let-down. And it was raining. Not a cheery Christmas.
Rob asked what was wrong, and I couldn’t express it. I finally calmed down, and we sat on a bench. I sobbed quietly. He put his arms around me. When we started walking again, I just came right out and said it.
“If you want to play the field, and feel as awful as I do now, well, go ahead.”
I started blubbering again. I stopped and looked over a railing at a house playing Christmas music. I was jealous of those happy families together for the holiday. I cried, off and on, and we talked.
“I read somewhere that if you love someone it’s like they have power over you,” Rob admitted. “I’m scared of you.”
That made me cry more. I knew I was awful for the way I had treated him. I managed to squeak out, “So you’re saying you don’t want me back?”
He took too long to answer that, and it was getting near midnight. I thought the only thing left to do was pray. So I walked silently to the duomo, cathedral. I didn’t care if he followed. We found a seat next to a soldier. There were lots of young people, mostly couples. I guess this was their excuse to get away from their families and be with friends and lovers. The mass was boring and didn’t include much prayer. But I snuck in some silent ones. Tears still welled up in my eyes from time to time.
I managed to walk out without having to talk to anyone I knew. As Rob followed me down the hill, he said, “I also read somewhere that it’s good for couples to go to religious services together. It strengthens their relationship.” Enough with the analytic research, Rob. What do you FEEL?
Then he stopped and said, “I don’t deserve to be with you. But won’t you take me back?”
“I don’t deserve you, Rob.”
When I realized he was serious, that he really wanted to get back together, I gave him a huge hug. I was instantly cured of my crying jag. I was happy. I told Rob stories of what a jerk Giovanni was, and how glad I was to be rid of him. Giovanni’s priorities were so twisted, his advice to me had been to a) stop smiling so much, because it would give me wrinkles, and b) start smoking, because it would help me lose weight! We laughed and kissed and held hands under the Christmas lights overhanging the streets.
One thing the priest had said, in his sermon, was that this was a time of rebirth. That’s exactly what I hoped would happen. Now we were reborn. We were a dedicated, monogamous couple. The rest of our days in Sicily looked sunny. As far as I was concerned, we’d be together forever. The Christmas Eve soap opera was over.
In the morning we were still cuddling, at the hotel, when it was time to get up for Christmas dinner at Carlo’s. One of Carlo’s best friends picked us up and whisked us over to his country house where his wife had already cooked the traditional baccla, fish. His parents and children were there too, and Ulla and Carlo would soon meet us with their family.
When Aunt Kay and Mom got out of the car, they saw a donkey and both yelled out “burro!” I calmly explained that in Italian, “burro” doesn’t mean donkey like in Spanish. They had just screamed “butter!” We laughed and our host joined in, even though he had no idea what we were laughing at. He was always jovial. He and Carlo were old friends, and they’d once teased me that all the men liked me. They pretended that, due to the force of my presence, men were simply driven to take their clothes off around me.
We ate and drank prodigiously. One of my favorite dishes was a spiral of sausages with fennel or finnochio seeds. I praised them, and Carlo’s pal delighted in describing how he had instructed the butcher how to make them just so. It was always a special treat to eat with Carlo and his friends, as they weren’t vegetarian like most of the hippie community.
The kids were loving the walkman that Aunt Kay had given them. They shared a headset and danced around, singing. Kay had brought gifts for the dogs and cats too. These special treats from America were unheard of in Sicily, where the pets ate table scraps but otherwise fended for themselves outdoors.
Carol was worn out from food, wine, and translation, and asked to take a nap in one of the bedrooms. Carol’s mom embarrassed Aunt Kay with her drunkenness, and then passed out on the couch watching Hook with the kids. As the dubbed Dustin Hoffman snarled a hateful, “Io ODIO Peter Pan!!”, Kay and I left Marilyn snoring and followed our jovial host out for a tour of his land. As when she had toughed it out to reach my house in the country, Aunt Kay impressed me with her agility descending grassy trails to the small “river” – which was more like a stream – amongst the bleating goats.
When everyone had arisen from their holiday comas that evening, Carlo’s buddy loaded us up for a swerving ride back to town. We thanked everyone, bid them buon natale again, and drove off happily as the children waved. As he dropped us off, he playfully slapped my face and made up for it with a double-cheeked kiss. I had a fantastic time and really felt embraced by Italy. I was ready to collapse in a soft hotel bed, but Carol had other ideas. Overwhelmed by dealing with her family, she wanted to brave the hour-long walk to my cold, dark house.
I talked her out of it.
After another blissful night of hotel living, Marilyn, Kay, and Carol were off again. They were headed for the sights of Sicily. Carol and Aunt Kay gave me big hugs, but Marilyn didn’t. She disturbed me by seeming rather somber. I scanned my memory to see what I might have done to upset her. Was her paying for the theater ticket the last straw? I remembered that she had also given me some art and stationary supplies. I’d assumed they were gifts, but she had left the price tags on them – maybe she had expected me to pay for them? It would be a bit awkward to bring it up now. I waved goodbye as the cab whisked them away.
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?
”No, what?” ”Sex.”
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,” Iam reallytired. 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 “capitoniente” (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 dayI 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 “mangiamangia” 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.
It had only been only a month, but it felt like Nikki had been with us forever. I couldn’t believe she was standing there with that giant green backpack towering over her, girded for a trip alone. I knew I would probably never see her again. Hell, maybe I didn’t even want to. The failure already hurt badly enough, what if I screwed it up yet again? The door hissed closed, and the bus rumbled out of sight down the tiny street spewing exhaust. I sighed, shivered, and pulled my knit cap down more tightly. I looked up at the swirling clouds extinguishing our brilliant summer.
Giovanni added to my gloom by telling me I’d better figure out where I was going to live right away, subito, because I’d need to start gathering firewood before the rains. I’d also need to figure out where to get water. I asked around and got a few suggestions. None seemed great. I could stay in Mick and Veronika’s broken down circus bus. I could stay with Artilio, who was desperate for companionship. Or I could try Casa de Oscar.
Oscar was a German whose unoccupied Sicilian getaway,about ten minutes’ walk from Artilio’s, was in good shape. I was sure Artilio would enjoy being able to keep his eye on me there, noting when I came and went without visiting and when I had a cozy fire going without inviting him over for a card game. Giovanni had told me about the place, Oscar was cool and wouldn’t mind my staying there. I plundered some other abandoned houses for supplies, found some usable chairs, pots, and pans, and dragged them up the hill to Oscar’s. The place didn’t have much in it except dirt, but at least it had a solid roof. I spent an afternoon stirring up clouds of dust as I swept the place out. Over the next few days I returned, gathering dead wood from the surrounding hillsides to store in the magasin or barn next to the house. It was arduous work in the blazing heat, which had mysteriously returned.
At one point, as I was dragging a branch across the parched valley floor, I stepped next to a nondescript hole in the ground. A black snake shot out, hissing with open jaws. I hurled myself back in shock, and my hat flew off and landed next to the hole. It might have been funny if it had landed on the snake. My heart raced as I checked my jeans for puncture wounds. I didn’t see any obvious ones. , Would I still die if I’d just been grazed by its fangs? Or maybe — my mind took a fanciful turn – it might just get me high?
This serpente hovered over its hole for a few more seconds, threatening and hissing like a cobra. Then it disappeared. I used a stick to retrieve my hat, rolled an old tire over, and propped it, against a dried thistle bush, next to the hole. I didn’t want to stumble on that spot again. Jesus, what a fucking place this was. In my opinion the snakes could have it.
After a few days I did start to feel pretty good about my accomplishments. The house was taking shape, and people were suggesting ways I might be able to get (a.k.a. steal) water and electricity from the Comune city government. Then Artilio burst my bubble, grumbling that I couldn’t keep all that wood I’d collected in the magasin, as Oscar had sold it to someone else. Crap. I put off taking all the wood back out. That night I went to Girasol, flopped down, and listened to music. In the evening, before dark, I headed to Marlies and Felippe’s. I always looked forward to getting to their place. The challenging trip over and under barbed wire, through a marsh, up steep clay gulley sides, and through passing goat, pig, or cattle herds was always worth it. Each part of the trip was etched into my mind and felt like an achievement. The last leg was the easiest, past another old farmhouse abandoned by the hippies, up a rutted but gentle road through an almond orchard, and winding among boulders and eucalyptus trees following the lights to the house.
Marlies and Felippe were unfailingly friendly, always offering food, drink, and conversation. Marlies told me she’d heard that Oscar’s whole property had been sold, which made me panic even more. I called Giovanni, and he contradicted that. To get to the bottom of it, Marlies called Oscar in Germany. Apparently the house was still available, and Marlies put in kind words for me. I was relieved, and we had a nice talk. She also offered me a precious bath. She translated the instructions on the German dandruff shampoo I had conveniently brought along just in case this opportunity arose. After that refreshing interlude, as my hair dried, we talked at the kitchen table over a bottle of wine. The conversation turned to travel and friendship. She had translated for me many times, so I was glad to return the favor by interpreting English slang in a postcard from a Canadian who had recently passed by on his mission to walk to India. Marlies mused that if you travel, you give up making a place of your own. That was a depressing thought, but I didn’t dwell on it. Marlies and Felippe always put me in a good mood. Reaching their house after a dark and difficult trip from dysfunctional Girasol felt like paradise.
Marlies had been playing an Irish music CD. My dad always talked of our Scottish and Irish ancestry, and he played the Clancy Brothers’ traditional music for us as kids. I wondered if maybe, instead of Sicily, I should be staying in Ireland for a year. I actually had roots there. Plus there would be girls I could actually speak to besides Carol.
Exhibiting my morbid fascinations, I led the conversation with Marlies to Germany in World War II and concentration camps. I’d heard about Jews who forgot how to speak German right after the war. When visiting Dachau, Marlies could feel that something horrible had taken place. To her, Germans would always seem cold and dangerous, with an unassailable sense of superiority. She was defensive about her own German ancestry. She wasn’t pure German — she was half Polish, a people who had also suffered much. However, her dad was embarrassed by his Polish heritage when he was around Germans. My dad had mixed feelings about his heritage too. He had taught himself to stop “speaking Southern” when he left Tennessee for a Northern college.
During the next few days, I shuttled between Girasol, Artilio’s, and Oscar’s. I found companionship with a couple of guys from up North who were futon-surfing in the area. I ate their food, smoked their joints, and let them help me gather wood. I figured they kind of owed it to me since they were imposing on my solitude at Girasol. Artilio wanted me to bring them by, ostensibly so he would recognize them and not think they were robbers. Artilio had also been bugging me with tales of men who were made cornuto, or cuckolds, by their women. He showed me the symbol for such men, holding his fist to his forehead, with index and pinkie fingers extended in what I knew back home as the heavy metal “sign of the devil.” Here, those horns growing out of your head meant your wife had made a goat out of you. It was a nonverbal insult you could throw at someone. Artilio not-too-subtly hinted that Carol was making me known as a cornuto thanks to her dalliance with Giovanni.
I headed to town one day, sneaking quietly past Artilio’s so I wouldn’t have to stop for another lecture about robbers and cuckolds. I scored a ride with a friendly fellow in one of the ubiquitous tiny three-wheeled trucks. It was very intimate in the cab, but I didn’t sense any funny business. It was different in town, though, when I ran into Fier. He invited me to one of his favorite out-of-the-way lunch spots.
Fier had always maintained an air of mystery, even if he tried to seem normal. Carol and I joked that the only thing to fear was Fier himself. Following him on a mission could lead you through God knew what twists and turns. He was a tall thin Jewish Dutchman, tanned despite wearing a traditional Sicilian hat to try to fit in with the locals. He spoke fluent Italian and Sicilian, but with the distinctive guttural accent that made him sound like Mike Meyers as Goldmember. He told stories of being in the cut-throat Amsterdam drug trade. My favorite was about a guy who cheated his gang out of a deal. The poor fellow was found with his man parts cut off and sewed into his mouth. That was the event that had convinced Fier to get out and do some traveling. He ended up liking Sicily the best. I never quite understood why, if he was fleeing the underworld of Amsterdam, he chose Sicily, the capital of the underworld.
I bought into Fier’s promise of an undiscovered jewel of Sicilian lunch specials. We entered the Trattoria Salus through an unmarked door. Fier led us to a table with some of his “friends.” The bar was full of grizzled men in berretta caps who eyed us as we walked across the room. A waiter brought us fresh bread and a bottomless bowl of the softest, juiciest, most flavorful black olives I had ever tasted. The flesh slid right off the pits, like perfectly-roasted chicken off the bone. I forgot my hesitations about the place as I savored this fantastic feast. Fier was catching up with his buddies, and I was making conversation as best I could.
Some of his pals started buying us drinks, which seemed nice enough. They played cards for beers and started a rock-paper-scissors type drinking game called “Capo, Godfather, drinker.” One fellow drew his chair uncomfortably close, and started to say a lot of things I couldn’t understand. As Fier translated, the guy proceeded to play with the hair around my shoulders. When I dodged out of the way, he reached for my ass. Fier said the guy had thought I was girl at first, but then he figured I must be gay, a pupozzo. He wanted me to come out to his farm where we could have some privacy! This wasn’t the kind of action I’d been hoping to find. I felt more surprised and amused than threatened though, and I tried to convince the guy I was, in fact, straight. I pointed out that plenty of young Italian hetero men had long hair as well. But he was unconvinced, and just said lo so, he could tell. At that point I’d had my fill of olives, wine, and sexual advances. I convinced Fier that we should bid them a buon giorno, and leave them alone with their malfunctioning gay-dar.
Fier had more mysterious errands to run, so we split up and I walked to the Plaza Cascino café. I hoped to see Carol, since she frequented this place. But no luck. I watched cute girls, however, and actually talked to one in Doc Martens. She was holding up the bus to Catania, much to the chagrin of the gesticulating driver. Marinella’s sister finally brought the bag she’d been waiting for. It seemed pointless to get her number, though, when I didn’t even have a phone. I went on to some errands and shopped at the corner grocery store. I loved how far my dollars seemed to stretch when magically changed into red, blue, and purple Lira. Maybe this place would be all right after all.
Sicilians left the olive groves in droves. I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for those left behind. My great- great-aunt Nicoletta was so lonely after her parents and her sister Catarina left for New York. She had no children of her own, and once terrified my grandmother when she came to visit in America. Nicoletta figured she would just snatch one of her sister’s kids before she hopped back on the boat to Sicily. She had chosen my grandmother Nettie, since they had the same name and red hair. It would look like they were mother and daughter. Plus her sister had three kids, it was only polite to share. Maybe she wouldn’t even notice one missing.
Her plan didn’t work. She pulled Nettie one way and her mother and sisters pulled the other, and Grandma stayed in New York. Nicoletta returned to Sicily where her father joined her just before he died. So her closest family ended up being her husband’s family in Menfi, where he was from.
My plans for a family were being torn asunder too. I felt Giovanni and I would never have sex again. We’d never be alone again, and never have our Sicilian baby together. He was sending me away so he could be with his other women. I’d never see Rob again. I’d never see Nikki again. I’d never be happy. Never, never, never… I’ve never taken change very well.
In order to deal with my new self-imposed anxieties, I had to fixate on something. I decided to give more thought to whether it might be right to have a baby with Giovanni, even if he didn’t want to be together. It turned out he liked the idea, or at least what it took to make the baby. He also wanted a piece of himself to live on forever, a bit narcissistic, perhaps? He liked the fact that I would take this piece of him to his dream land, America, where he wouldn’t have to be responsible for it. For some reason I actually considered this possibility. It must have been my total rejection of Rob and his “I never want kids” mantra.
When Giovanni dropped me at my new home, with Ulla, we kissed in the car as if I were leaving for America that very day.
“This is ridiculous. We’ll see each other at least once a week,” he pointed out. “You promise?” I was like a desperate war widow on the train platform.
“Yes. I’d let you stay at my house all year if it were bigger.”
“Really? What about your other women? Your lupo solitario life?” “Insoma.” An Italian phrase that meant oh yeah, that, that’s just the way it is. It really meant “end of conversation.”
Giovanni helped me unload my bags into the basement. He briefly chatted with Ulla then gave us both a kiss goodbye. I sadly watched his tall, skinny blue-jeaned body disappear.
Ulla distracted me from my sadness with dinner. It was the first time I had ever tried a portabello mushroom. I was never into mushrooms before, but this big, grilled, juicy portabello with olive oil was so simple, so amazingly delicious.
That evening I played Battleship with the boys. I wanted to feel a part of the family. Carlo, Ulla’s Roman husband, was kind and asked getting-to-know-you questions. He suggested I take Giovanni to America, since he never went anywhere.
That week, I asked everyone I knew about the baby question. Annabella suggested we just practice. Ulla said to go for it. I would learn that she was a bad influence when it came to big life questions. Aunt Kay called with the surprising news that she was coming to Italy to bring me on a tour of the mainland. My mother would join us as we toured Sicily. Kay had dreamt of someone in the family having a baby. I told her that was a weird coincidence, since I was considering it. She gave her blessing and promised to convince my mom to support me too, if it happened.
So Giovanni and I had the official family blessing. Was it a sign? Was the dream saying we should have a baby? Was this our destiny?
Even Rob said we should, mainly because he was glad to be off the hook. Or maybe because he was tired of hearing me obsess about it.
I was lonely in the hills of Ulla’s back yard. No Giovanni. No Rob. No Nikki. What was I to do? Of course I liked hanging out with Ulla and Carlo and walking in the hills and valleys. I even learned the shortcut to the Roman villa where all the tour buses dropped off tourists to see the town’s big attraction, which was reputedly one of the best Roman ruins on Earth. During those long walks I decided I wanted a real love story, like the one that had flourished between Carlo and Ulla for twenty years. Maybe Giovanni and I weren’t ever going to be that, and Rob? I wasn’t sure.
Looking out over the green-brown hills and olive trees, seeing the hawks circling overhead, I remembered this was what I had come to Sicily for. I didn’t come to fall in love or have a baby. I came to find my roots and learn Italian. I felt much more at ease as I watched the sunset, and I realized I simply needed to relax. I picked and ate some figs and prickly pears, then went back inside alone.
Without Carol I was struggling to figure out where to live and what to do with my life. Should I even stay in Sicily? I tried to make more friends, and I accepted an invitation to a birthday get-together at a place called Parco Rosso. I got a ride with Marlies and Felippe. We left the city by an unfamiliar road past a multi-story concrete building that looked unfinished and abandoned. This was to have been the brand new state-of-the-art hospital for Piazza Armerina, but, like so many projects in Sicily, funds had mysteriously disappeared halfway through construction. It lay in wait like a sleeping beauty, perhaps it would arise one day far in the future. Nobody was holding their breath for the prince.
When I arrived at the party, I met the parents of the birthday boy, Nils. Hilda and her boyfriend Kai were part of the German expatriate community in Valle Perfetta, over the ridge from Girasol in the opposite direction from Oscar’s. I was happy to see Carol was at the party too, and we joined the kids on the playground. We climbed the monkey bars and sat on the seesaw to talk. She proposed that our friend Annabella could be the “father” to her kids by Giovanni, and they could raise them in Oscar’s house. It took me a second to realize she was joking, at least partly.
Annabella was a short but fiery alternachick from Trieste, in far Northeast Italy, a city that Italy and Austria had battled over for centuries. She was in her twenties, like us, with dreadlocks and combat boots and a cute round face. She had wormed her way into everyone’s hearts after dumping Mick and making up with Veronika. I noticed she didn’t shave her legs, but they were usually covered by long johns or leggings. Even Marlies’ eleven-year-old son Diego commented “Che cullo!” one day when she walked by, “great butt!” I heard Mick comment that, compared to Annabella, Veronika gave head like a sack of potatoes. What a guy.
Parco Rosso was a pleasant spot among the eucalyptus trees, next to an old train station. Although I hadn’t brought anything to contribute, I swallowed my guilt and dug into the potluck food. There were twenty or thirty adults and kids and plenty of excitement. Diego was a bundle of writhing, bounding energy, hanging from trees and jumping off the jungle gym. Ulla almost fainted when he cut his head and dripped blood everywhere. But she recovered and offered to take him for stitches. The rest of us pressed on, eating and drinking until past dark.
At the dessert table, we partook of almond cookies and huge persimmons that surprised me by having no seeds. When Ulla returned with a sewn-up Diego, she suggested I talk with Hilda about a small house that might be available near her. Apparently one of her neighbors, Helmut, had built a new house. The small original stone farmhouse he had squatted in years earlier was empty now, except when his ex-wife came from Germany on holidays. This would become a big detail, but it didn’t seem so at the time. I chatted with Hilda, who said it sounded like a good idea. I would be much safer and more comfortable with neighbors and electricity, Strom. I liked the sound of the German word, like power lines being strummed by the current. Hilda promised to talk to Helmut about it. And heck, with my blond hair and blue eyes, I’d fit right in. This would be great – I could be in Sicily while Carol learned her family’s culture and language and be immersed in my family’s culture and language, German.
The party broke up. Ulla carted Carol back off to domestic servitude, and I felt an ache in my chest as I watched them putter off. I partly wished I could go too, back to Carol’s arms, back to a comfortable house with soft sheets and running water. But Annabella and I hitched with Hilda to Valle Perfetta. In the moonlight we trudged over the ancient rocky hill back to Girasol. Our Northern futon-surfing buddies came by too. Someone pulled out rolling papers, and a big night of drifting spinelli smoke began.
In the morning, the cats had shit on the carpet. I left it for the Northerners, who put sawdust on the turds before cleaning them up. For lack of a better plan, I headed back to town. I needed a routine, like Carol had. I discovered that sometimes it was easier to walk backwards up the hills, using different muscle groups and breaking up the tedium. No doubt the locals were watching, and thinking God knows what about this pazzo stranieri, crazy foreigner. When I reached Bar Charlotte, an hour or so later, I found Jean, the traveling German artisan Carol had told me about. He had been cruising around at various market days and fairs in Italy, braiding hair in the current fashion. I got a panini and beer with him, and we sat and talked in the park. Jean was a sweetheart, and amusing to look at. Tall and gaunt with a big smile, he wore a headband. He also wore a black and white scarf, in the Arabic style, usually over striped or Hawaiian shirts with acid washed jeans. Afterwards he bought me coffee, and I kicked myself for forgetting to thank him. Typical.
While writing some postcards, I thought about my cousin Theresa back home. She was half Sicilian-American herself. Maybe I should be more like her. Get a master’s degree, get a respectable job, and be able to afford shorter but more frequent trips to Europe. Maybe that was better than this protracted morass of boredom and self-pity.
That night, I dreamt that even my arch-conservative dad had succumbed to the ancient temptations of the Mediterranean. I found him frolicking in the surf with some beautiful young Italians. I was glad he could finally follow his dreams, unrestricted by social convention. It also gave me hope for when I got old. I was shocked that he had actually broken up with Mom, though, after enduring years of their arguments. I joined Dad and the others swimming for a while, but then someone pointed out all the stinging nettles in the water, which had turned from blue to brown. It was no longer the Mediterranean. It had morphed into the Chesapeake Bay. The fun and freedom were over. I awoke and realized that I really should make the most of all this. I couldn’t just give up and go back home.
I settled into a routine to try to stay sane. Mornings would find me breakfasting on bread and jam with Ulla and Carlo, and listening to them nag Samuele about one thing or another. They wanted him to make more friends at middle school. It struck me as a pretty tall order; I remembered my unpleasant experiences with peers that age. Then I’d write in my journal or pen letters to friends, take a walk, or hang out around the house. At lunch I always worried that I wasn’t being enough help, and I was anxious that I was bothering Carlo. But Ulla said, “Just ignore him, he’s a grumpy 40-something man, like all of them – men that is.”
Carlo cooked, and, basically, I could only boil water to his satisfaction. I was, however, good at washing the dishes and cleaning up. I learned quickly that you can’t cook for an Italian. Determining which sauce goes with which pasta and what meat is appropriate for the second course is an exact science. I did learn how to properly clean the lettuce for salad, which we served as the last course, but I couldn’t be trusted to add the salt or olive oil.
I’d catch a ride back in town with Carlo or Ulla when one of them re-opened their jewelry store for the afternoon. The other stayed home with the kids – those lucky Italian students finish school at 1:00 p.m. I’d go to the palestre, the gym owned and operated by Giovanni’s Nikki-chasing brother, Fabio. I would use the muscle machines. Sometimes I’d drop by to see if Giovanni was at his apartment, which usually caused me to miss my ride home. But Giovanni was glad to bring me back, after an intimate reunion.
On the weekends, Ulla’s friends would come over for long Sunday lunches and discussions. Or we’d go to one of the hippie parties or someone else’s house for lunch. I liked getting to know Ulla and Carlo, but my identity around town was still wrapped up in Giovanni. More of his friends suggested I take him to America, or warned me that he never fell in love and slept with every woman he could get his hands on. Maybe it was a mistake to continue hanging out with his friends.
One Thursday morning, when I went into town for the market, I actually had time between errands to walk around and enjoy all the sights and sounds. I loved hearing the men yelling about their fruit and clothing for sale. A few gypsies offered good fortune if I gave them money. I almost did, but I decided to let fate run its course without bribery.
I rang up to Giovanni’s. He let me in, but he was getting dressed for work and seemed distracted. I panicked — maybe our relationship was crumbling. With so much time on my hands, I was over-analyzing everything.
Looking out the window, I noticed that Giovanni had a direct view of the cathedral on the hill. I looked down and saw a tourist. It was Rob. I was ecstatic to see him, because I’d heard from Artilio that Rob had moved all the way to Aidone, a town that’s famous for the Greek ruins of Morgantina. As picky as Rob was, maybe the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina just wasn’t ancient enough for him. I said goodbye to Giovanni, ran down to the street, and gave Rob a huge hug. I’d thought I would never see him again, and my guilt over having abandoned him had overwhelmed me.
To hell with getting back to Ulla’s to do my work that day. I accompanied Rob on his trek back to Girasol. We made the obligatory stop at Artilio’s, after concurring with what everyone had said that his information contained gaps either from his old age, drug use, or other unidentified sources. When Rob had discussed the Gulf War with Artilio, the old man had bemoaned how terrible it was that Palestine had attacked Turkey. When Rob had tried to correct him, Artilio looked at him as if he were the dumbest American from a whole continent full of ignoramuses.
Artilio’s information might have been unreliable, but you could trust that his food would be good. His menu had changed to a more wintery dish. Instead of the summer tomato sauce on bocatini pasta followed by chicken which he’d cooked in the sauce, Artilio now served meatballs. I think it was the first time I had actually eaten a meatball in Italy.
I asked Artilio what he thought of destiny. In his low grumbly voice he said, “Nonlo credi,” I don’t believe in it. Then with an accusatory finger only an old Sicilian could properly point, he added, “You believe only because you are afraid of death.”
Of course I was afraid of death. Who wasn’t? Apparently the older this man got, the less afraid of it he was. He had lived his life. He’d had his destiny. He’d shared a life with his wife and nursed her while she was sick. He had watched her die.
After thanking him for lunch, and for his interesting opinions and advice, we headed on to Girasol, where Rob was staying. When we opened the door, I was appalled by Rob’s lack of housekeeping.
“Rob, you sure left a huge mess.”
Rob looked hurt, and tried to pass the buck.
“Dumb cats,” he said, looking at the books and bags strewn on the floor. Rob had joined Mick in detesting all the kittens being born.
Then Rob looked around for a moment and grew silent. “Where is the stereo?”
“Oh my God, Girasol has been robbed!” I screamed.
We couldn’t believe it. In such a seemingly isolated and innocent place? How did they know Mick and Veronika were gone? That Rob was here alone the night before? They must have assumed whoever lived here had gone to the Thursday market. Who was it? That scumbag Enzo who’d said I could fuck him in his car or get left in the middle of nowhere? Or was it some other evil shepherd?
We cleaned up as best we could, then went up the hill to Marlies’s house to report the crime. They told us not to worry, the place had been robbed many times. I wished I had known that while my passport was stored there all summer. Annabella was there too, and she seemed less understanding. She was pissed that this had happened while she and Rob were supposed to be watching the place.
I spent a nervous night at Girasol, and the next morning I danced around, celebrating surviving the night. Singing to myself was novel since, with no ‘70s music blasting from the stereo, the place was quiet for the first time. As I jumped and pranced, I landed, barefoot, in cat shit. Those cats were not getting any more popular. The place was full of shit, so I can’t just blame the cats. The sacks of rice were full of mouse shit. Mick and Veronika’s undiapered two year old, who had no real potty to be trained on, had left shit and piss everywhere. They must have been able to mellow out and accept it all with the help of the pot plant they had growing on the windowsill.
The morning of the robbery, I had headed to Giovanni’s in hopes that he’d let me take a shower. As I walked over to his apartment complex, Carol ran down to see me. I was surprised at the long hug she gave me. Being out there in the wilderness, I hadn’t seen her in what felt like weeks. It was great to be back together, if only as friends.
Since she was so excited to see me, I let her keep thinking I had come looking for her. I was pleased that she had missed me enough to hike all the way out to Girasol, and I was glad to have her company when we discovered the crime.
Panicking, I ran to where I had hidden my camera and travelers’ checks. I felt triumphant, but a bit self-centered, when I found that all my stuff was safe and untouched where I had hidden it, under the children’s toys. The burglars had opened my backpack and looked in, but apparently they hadn’t seen anything they wanted.
When Annabella found out, she was fuming. I got stressed, and my eczema started flaring up. I really wished I’d taken that shower at Giovanni’s. Instead, I washed my hair in the sink, which felt good enough. I went upstairs to cuddle and talk with Carol in the loft, but when we started to fall asleep she sent me downstairs.
After the cat’s generous gift was wiped clean from my bare foot, I bid goodbye to the never mellow residence and caught a ride to town with one of Artilio’s neighbors. Giovanni accepted me in his place for the day and wasn’t rushed for work or anything this time.
The church bells chimed eight times, somewhere in town, and I knew I had missed my ride back to Ulla’s. Giovanni finished and relaxed, claiming he was “morto,” dead, but that “il sesso e bello,” sex is beautiful. A common thought in Sicily.
I spent the night. The next morning I was woken up by the buzz of the doorbell, and Mick rushed in like a tornado demanding to borrow a radio. Since he’d returned to Girasol to find the stereo gone, they were dying without any music. I finally made it back to Ulla’s, and, when I apologized for my absence, she told me not to worry. She understood I was a young wanderer, out and about with my lovers. She was always so cool. She joked that she hoped I wasn’t suffering too much with all my intrigues. I had amused her with my stories, including tales of dating cowboys, back home, with their crazy ideas about living in trailers and raising “varmints” together. It was comforting being back in the safety of Carlo and Ulla’s, and I hoped Rob would be O.K. in the Wild West side of the neighborhood.
Annabella had already gone when I finally dragged myself out of bed at Girasol. She’d left a note saying she had planted the garden and was heading to town. It was raining and muddy out. Hell, she was up and at ‘em before 9 am, in this weather? If the dictatorship of the proletariat ever did take hold in Italy, Annabella might just be the one to lead it. Carol and I arose at a more leisurely pace. Then, to my chagrin, she, too, insisted on leaving for town in the rain. Left alone again, I filled the time by writing letters to my family and painting.
Annabella returned in late afternoon, disrupting my reverie. But I was glad she might relieve me of having to stay alone at night after the burglary. Sicily had seemed depressing to me before, but not dangerous. I gladly helped her plant lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage seeds. Though it had stopped raining, it was still cold. With the help of a cool-looking leather jacket with a broken zipper, borrowed from inside the house, it wasn’t such bad work. As darkness fell, she hiked over to Marlies and Felipe’s to discuss plans for the Christmas program they wanted to put on this season. Naturally, I was alone again.
I survived the night with no visit from criminal elements and happily breakfasted on Melba toast and jam. I had proudly bought those at the supermarket days before. Somehow that little act of self-determination seemed huge to me. On previous visits to the market, I’d followed Annabella around like a whipped puppy dog.
I fed the chickens and watered the plants, and I was looking forward to doing some painting. I had just set up my pallet when I heard people crunching through the fallen leaves. I went outside to see who it was. Unfortunately, Mick, Veronika, and the kids were back. Their car had run out of fuel on the paved road last night, and they had slept there rather than fumbling back, with kids and gear, in the dark. Mick was in a foul mood, and the peace of my tranquil morning evaporated. Like Veronika, I tiptoed around, trying to chill Mick out, rather than risking his wrath. I offered to help carry diesel from the nonfunctioning circus truck to the car. But first I was in the unenviable position of having to break the news of the burglary.
As soon as I did, Mick ran to the stereo shelf, as if I’d made the story up. As he cursed and the children looked at him with wide eyes, Veronika explained that they’d also had 300,000 lira (about $200) stolen from their car while on the road. Hell of a streak of luck. Of course, I was afraid they would blame me for not watching the place well enough. I felt a twinge of guilt when Mick refused my help carrying diesel to the car, so I offered to babysit instead. Mick was always glad to be unburdened of the kids, so he accepted.
The kids led me into the nuccioli, hazelnut tree grove, further than I’d been before. They were very excited about it, but my neck hurt from bending down to look for hazelnuts. Sabine cracked them open with rocks, I followed suit and gave some to Hans, who was too small to open his own. Many of them seemed rotten or fermented. Sabine made a big show of disgust at these and spat them out, but Hans relished them. I was afraid we’d be late for lunch, but somehow I didn’t worry about them losing their appetite filling up on rotten nuts.
When we returned, Veronika had made an elaborate lasagna-like dish. It was baked pasta with egg and cheese; I was in awe of someone making such a complicated meal. Just boiling spaghetti and making sauce seemed daunting to me. I did the dishes, then the kids begged to continue the walk, and I conceded. I would take them up to Oscar’s, so I could pick up Mick’s saw which I’d left there. I worried he might notice it missing and didn’t want to be blamed for it getting stolen too.
I was apprehensive as we headed up there, perhaps it had become the thieves’ den. Sabine knew a back way, and we trudged I was apprehensive as we headed up there, perhaps it had become the thieves’ den. Sabine knew a back way, and we trudged up the hill. It was a challenge helping the children, and their dolls, up the dry river gullies. On the road I saw Annabella and some others approaching in the distance. I was feeling antisocial, so I thought it would be a fun game to hide in an old house, with the kids, and spy on them as they passed by. After the sound of conversation had died away, we took a cow path the rest of the way.
Oscar’s showed no sign of burglars. I grabbed the saw, as the kids looked around curiously, and we headed back by way of Artilio’s. He was in his garden of trees, but again I suggested that we be play spies and avoid him. Our stealthy mission completed, the exhausted kids and I trudged back to Girasol in time for me to help prepare dinner. I helped cut veggies for a salad to go with the pasta and boiled potatoes. This time Annabella didn’t volunteer to clean up afterwards. I wondered if she was testing me – I took the bait and did the cleaning.
The next evening Veronika worked on crafting a new puppet. I looked forward to one of Mick’s meticulously-crafted spinellis, not considering that he might be tired of sharing his stash with me. I did worry that maybe I was beginning to like smoking this stuff too much.
When I mentioned possibly living in Valle Perfetta, Veronika went off. She set down her puppet head so she could add gestures to her speech about how conservative the people were there. They refused to be seen naked, and my potential landlord, Helmut, had been too embarrassed to let his children have friends over until they got a “real” indoor toilet. This was especially ironic since he used to be an ascetic Hare Krishna. Then there was the couple who spoiled their Great Dane, Attila, by treating him like the child they’d never had. They would rush him off to the vet if it had “just the slightest bit of liquid shit.” Now that they finally had a baby, Veronika continued, the poor neglected dog had turned bitter and psychotic, a danger to anybody who visited the hilly German area.
Despite her warnings, the next day I braved up the hill past Marlies and Felipe’s to Valle Perfetta. Wiping sweat from my brow as I reached the Valle Perfettaroad, I met Hilda bringing her kids home from school. They lived in a charming little house they had restored. It was a wood, stone, and glass construction with a very open feeling and heartbreakingly quaint paths and gardens around it. Hilda was usually pleasant and had an oversized smile for such a slight woman. She dressed colorfully, spoke English nearly perfectly, as did all the Germans, and usually kept her straight shoulder-length brown hair pulled back from her tanned face in a tiny ponytail. Her partner, Kai, was in his late 30’s or early 40’s, like Hilda and most of the foreign community. He had long, thinning scraggly blond hair, a deeply lined face, and a sinewy, muscular body. He was outgoing and warm, always animated and enthusiastic. I heard he was a recovered heroin addict. I could hardly imagine that, judging by his work ethic now. He loved to stay busy and was always planning new additions to his house, clearing new fields, building new tool sheds, and most importantly, fermenting new batches of wine.
Their children, Georg, seven, and Pia, celebrating her sixth birthday, were forces of nature. Wild children, they seemed to have been cherished and indulged so much they felt like they owned the world. Carol didn’t like them much, as the first time she’d met them, Georg had kicked her. I tried to tolerate them, and it was kind of cute the way they pronounced my name “Rop.”
Pia showed me the path to Helmut’s. He was asleep, and his Sicilian wife, Lea, said to come back in an hour. So I went down the ridge to Fier’s house. It didn’t occur to me until later how ironic it was that a Jew with a number instead of a name — “fear” being how the number four is pronounced in German — was living amongst Germans. But Fier didn’t seem to have a problem with it; he lived happily in his quaint stone house. It was similar to Girasoland Oscar’s, but smaller, and he had arranged with the absentee landowner to stay there as a caretaker. One door faced the path from the house that might be mine, and an outdoor sink and storage area sat in front of the door. The tiled ground floor had windows facing down the terraced hill, and a ground floor had windows facing down the terraced hill, and a table and chairs sat next to a wood stove. A rough-hewn ladder led up to a loft for a sleeping area. That day, Fier wasn’t there to let me in.
I made myself as comfortable as I could, lying on the hard bench outside his place. I stared at the clouds swirling above and bemoaned the complexity of my fate. I wished I had the self-determination and confidence Carol seemed to have. I started to hope she was having a bad time! I was falling victim to this Stockholm-effect brainwashing. I wanted to be angry at her, but I was scared. What if she was the best I could ever hope for? Perhaps someone as damaged and weird as me wouldn’t find anyone ever again.
Maybe I belonged back in Minnesota, after all, but not as her puppy dog. Maybe I needed to find my own place when we moved back there. Hell, maybe I should try having multiple partners herein Sicily like Giovanni. It would be a good experiment for Minnesota if I went back with Carol. I should call her more often, but that would mean more hikes to the phone at Marlies and Felipe’s, just to risk interrupting her sex with Giovanni. What the hell was I doing with my life? Was I capable of living alone? Or even living with others? Would I ever be able to manage anything “normal” people do, besides eating and shitting?
I kicked up some intriguing sandstones. Appropriately enough, given all the recent conversations about sex, my stone struck me as an ancient fertility idol. It had three distinct sections for head, torso, and legs, like the famous prehistoric Venus of Willendorf. At the bottom of the torso, a long bump seemed to suggest a penis.
I had read that most stone-age civilizations were matrilineal rather than male-centered, because it wasn’t until the rise of agriculture that men took control. But this stone reminded me of the Roman port cities, where penis-shaped arrows pointed the way for the emperor’s sailors to find the whore houses. Leave it to Italy to have been phalocentric forever. I marveled at this stone and tried to feel scientific rather than queer as I rubbed dirt off its phallic area. Was this really an ancient artifact which had worked its way to the surface at the exact moment in history for me to find it? A messenger totem inspiring me to virility and masculinity? Or just a random chunk of rock? This Sicilian mysticism was getting to me.
Fier never showed, so after the allotted time seemed to have passed, I headed back and found Helmut awake. We sat and talked — I mostly listened — and they invited me to stay for dinner. It was bread, cold cuts, and hot sauce, and it was fine by me!
At first, Helmut said he might give me a three-week trial period to see how I fit in there. He talked authoritatively about many things. Like Carol’s host Carlo, he was making a good living as a jewelry vendor. But he told me of his rough early days as a young hippie when he barely had enough to eat. Helmut was thin and bald. He counseled me to eat a variety of foods, because he was sure that a vitamin deficiency, caused by his long poverty diet of bread and pasta, had led to the loss of his hair. I nodded and promised I would take care of my hair. After more wine and stories, he thought I seemedamenable and tranquilo enough, so no trial period was necessary. Sure I could stay there, no problem! I felt I had won the lotto. By then it was late and dark, so he offered to let me sleep over rather than stumble back to Girasolunder the clouded moon. This all looked very promising.
When I woke up, Helmut had gone. His wife said he left at six each day, and I was glad I wasn’t him. I went outside and around to the bathroom. One of the house rules, Helmut had told me, was that everyone, male and female alike, must pee sitting down. I forgot that until it was too late, and hoped my aim was good enough that Helmut wouldn’t notice. Lea offered me breakfast, which was the same ham and salami we’d had for dinner with soft cheese, honey, and toasted bread. She also gave me tea and a cup of coconut yogurt, which was new to Sicily. It was new to me, too. I tried to converse, but it felt awkward. I helped clean the table, but worried I’d break some house rule and do it wrong. She took me to see where I’d be living.
There were actually two small one-room houses I could use, plus a small “bath” shed with no bath. None of these buildings had locks or keys. They all technically belonged to Helmut’s ex-wife. Lea tested the water, which turned on fine at the outdoor sink of the main house. As for a bathroom, there was what Veronika poetically called a “shit pit,” one terrace below, covered by a board. A few scant bushes provided some privacy, but, luckily, no one passed by very often. The electricity also worked fine – in each building one bare bulb hung from a wire. I was excited by so many amenities. The main house had a quaint wood-burning stove, as well as a four-burner attachment, called a bombola, which could be hooked up to a propane tank. The word’s similarity to ‘bomb’ didn’t make me feel too comfortable.
The main house was quaint, built of stone with a red tile roof, and it backed into the hillside. Pastel psychedelic patterns adorned the plastered walls inside. Windows stretched along the front and the side facing Hilda’s. That would give me a chance to hide if I saw Georg and Pia approaching. There was a piano, a rope-frame bed and mattress, and plenty of dust and dead bugs to clean out. It looked like paradise.
After bidding good day to Lea, I stopped at Hilda’s on my way back toGirasol, feeling good. No one was home, so I sat on their garden bench. It was peaceful. Looking up at the enfolding Sicilian hills, I finally felt a sense of belonging. Somehow I was above the fray now. I could have my place for free and do whatever I felt like for a year, living off my savings. I wouldn’t have to work like everyone else, farmers, shepherds, fire-juggling street performers, jewelry sellers, and taxi drivers.
In the morning at Girasol, Annabella snapped, “You know, when you’re not doing anything, you could be cleaning up or putting on some tea!” I had worried I might be in trouble when I told her I fed the chickens and she seemed underwhelmed. So I swept and cleaned up. She was probably right, but I just didn’t feel like doing it. A big baby, I guess. We talked about the problem of living with your parents too long – she said you turn out spoiled, like me. That pissed me off, but she might be right. Chastened, I tried to be helpful all day. I hoed soil in the garden, sacrificing the painting time I’d hoped to have.
Around lunchtime I happened to lift the lid of the wooden trunk in which Mick and Veronika stored their rice. The rice, which was not in bags, was a foot deep in the trunk. It was fun to run my hand through and play with. Then I noticed something odd. Interspersed with the white rice were occasional black flecks. At first I assumed they were bad grains of rice. But upon closer inspection, I realized what they were. I had lived in a small apartment, growing up, with my family of five squeezed into two bedrooms. The only pets we had were goldfish, gerbils, and mice. What I was seeing in the rice bin was unmistakably rodent poop.
Annabella was, at the moment, boiling some of it to go with dinner. I started to get a bit queasy and pointed out my discovery to her. “Well, it doesn’t matter!” she snapped. “They just eat the same thing you do, so it’s natural!” I was speechless at this logic. I didn’t say anything else about it, but I didn’t eat any of the rice either. Instead I managed to sufficiently pull myself together to make some couscous. It turned out delicious. I let her eat mouse poop in peace. I wondered if maybe Annabella was right about one thing. Perhaps the energy you put into things does karmically come back to you. But when you cook a big dinner, there are so many dishes waiting for you in the morning!
The next day, Mick returned and said they didn’t need any help with the kids. I figured it was due to the spicy potato salad incident. I took the chance to escape and lugged all my belongings to the supposedly uptight community of Valle Perfetta. Scattered clouds passed overhead as I wended through the cow paths and boulders. The scenery inspired me to write some poems. It was also a nice excuse to take breaks from carrying all my crap.
When I got to Helmut’s empty house, I dropped my stuff and took a nap. I wasn’t all that physically tired, but I was depressed. I’d always hated change. Afterwards I stopped at Helmut’s. He was at work, but Lea offered me delicious cabbage and carrot soup. I hung out a while and called Carol on their phone, used their precious indoor bathroom, and read to their and carrot soup. I hung out a while and called Carol on their phone, used their precious indoor bathroom, and read to their daughter in Italian and my roughly-pronounced German. I borrowed a saw to cut some wood, and then ran into Georg and Pia as they returned from school. They insisted that I come with them to gather chestnuts and figs, which we shared.
Back at what I would now call my house, I rifled through my stuff and found a book of matches. I gathered some sticks, started a cozy fire in the wood stove, and settled in for my first evening.
Carol’s last evening in Menfi, she went back to town to say her farewells to distant relatives. Nikki and I hiked and hitched to yet another local stretch of beach. The sky held jumbled clouds that echoed the rough surf. We talked as we drank wine and ate snacks. We decided to brave the waves and waded into the warm, violent waters. Laughing and wrestling, we pushed each other under the roiling breakers. As the sky darkened and clouds thickened, we re emerged from the sea and sat close to each other on the unfurled beach blanket. We talked some more, but with the dying of the light we began to get chilled. I knew I should put my arm around Nikki, in a gesture of friendly warmth, and see if that pretense led to a kiss. I could feel the tension and expectation building. Did she really want it too? Was I imagining it? Was I about to make a fool of myself? The breeze picked up. I sensed time was running out, but I wasn’t just chilly now. I was frozen. The possibility that she might find me sleazy and reject me was just too frightening. So instead, I let her think that I was a wimp. Crap.
After it became undeniably cold, we both agreed we should be going. With a sigh I pulled on my t-shirt and jacket, and we shook off sand and packed up our bags. As we passed rows of overladen vines, I trudged back down the road with her.
For our last breakfast there, Nikki, Carol, and I ate more bread spread with Nutella; then we packed our things. Paying the last of our rent, we said our farewells to the family. It took so long I worried we’d miss our bus connection. There was only one bus scheduled that day, and my mood began to darken as Rosa rushed us into town. I really didn’t want to have to hitchhike halfway across the island to get to our next destination.
Despite having read self-help books about the power of positive thinking, I couldn’t get the fear out of my mind. And sure enough, we missed the bus by about fifteen minutes. I threw my heavy backpack on the ground and sat there, stewing. I knew this probably didn’t look too attractive to the ladies, but I didn’t care. Nikki and Carol began thumbing, and eventually we got a ride, out of the quiet village, to the next town where we could make bus connections and go our separate ways. Carol gave us big hugs and stepped up into her bus heading to Piazza Armerina in the center of the island. Nikki and I waited for another bus to take us in the opposite direction.
Back in Piazza the wind had blown summer away – everyone was wearing blue jeans and jackets. Kids were sporting backpacks and going to school in the mornings. I rushed quickly to Giovanni’s house since I had to pee after my third long bus ride. He gave me a big hug and, holding my hand, led me to the kitchen. I urged him to let me go because I really had to use the bathroom. He laughed.
When I had finished, he said my Italian was worse. I explained that Rob, Nikki, and I had been hanging out like proper American tourists. I knew he’d be curious to meet Nikki. I wasn’t that jealous, but I found out that he was. Apparently, while I was gone, Massimo, the barista from Catania, had called a few times. Giovanni said he didn’t want to be my answering service for all my spasamantes, “suitors,” which used to mean men seeking marriage, but now referred to guys hoping to get laid. I had to give my real amante, Giovanni, bad news – I had to take my medicine and abstain from sex for a whole month. All he said was “Che pecado.” More Italian double meanings, it means a shame, but also a sin that we couldn’t sin.
Are sins eventually punished? According to Aunt Jo’s stories, yes. Grandma Nettie was ashamed of her Sicilian roots, so most of our family stories came from her sister, Aunt Jo. Jo was feisty and fought anyone who got in her way – Papa Nick once kicked her for insubordination.
Aunt Jo told a story of her grandfather Gaspare’s sister, a seamstress who never married and lived alone in Sicily. This great- great-aunt was just doing her business, cooking and keeping warm beside the hearth, when a spark escaped and she caught on fire. She burned to death. Sad, but, in those days, everyone thought it was just one of those things that happened. You play with fire, you get burned.
Giovanni let my body heal, and we just fell asleep that first night. We awoke to the sound of his apartment buzzer. Veronika laughed when she walked in and found us both in our underwear. She chatted a little, then she told us to meet her and Mick by hippie central, Bar Charlotte. Before I’d met all these hippies of the hills, I had been more accustomed to Bar Bogart, where the Lions hung out. Its name alone seemed classier, and they even held weddings there. Every group in town seemed to have their own plaza and their own bar.
Now we knew what Veronika had talked about with Mick during their Rosh Hashanah phone call. This was a new year for them, a new beginning. She was going to let him come back. Everything about this island was different from the morality plays inspired by America’s pilgrim heritage. Mick left her with piles of Woodstick concert trash and three kids to take care of, and she took him back? Not only that, he left with another woman and she let him come back? AND she let the other woman stay at her house and travel with her? None of it made sense to me.
Mick was cute, with long brown dreadlocks, more attractive than most English guys. But he still didn’t make a good impression on me. He was the fastest talker I’d ever met. Conversing with him left me spinning and traveling millions of miles a minute. His Italian was perfect, and I could understand it much better than his English – a deep inner London, almost Cockney accent. And he’d use weird expressions like “taking a piss,” which seemed straightforward to me but meant something else to him. His actions were as quick as his speech, making him seem spastic. Mostly, though, I didn’t like him because he ignored me and just talked to Giovanni while holding his clingy three-year old daughter in his lap. He ignored her too, even now after his abandonment, when she needed him most.
Across the bar, Annabella didn’t seem too happy with his return either. Would she still be able to stay at their house? Or maybe that was the last thing she wanted to do at that moment.
Giovanni got sucked into a deep conversation with Mick, probably a new political analysis he’d heard dictated by Berlusconi on the Rai TV. Giovanni couldn’t keep his eyes off that Italian version of jiggle TV. So I looked around for someone to talk to and found the newest hippie on the scene. Jean was another German but new to the valley. Traveling through Italy in his 1970s Volkswagen van, he paid his way making trechina braids for girls’ hair and selling little bracelets at markets.
Since returning to town, I’d been staying at the same old place, Girasol. So now I would get to enjoy even more time with Mick. He offered me a ride back from Bar Charlotte, which I grudgingly took. His driving was as wild as he was, made worse by Veronika arguing with him the whole way. He drove too quickly on the new rain moist mudslide of a road to their home. With every point he made to win the argument with Veronika he flew up the mountainside of the non-existent curb of their homemade carved way to Girasol.
Their reunion didn’t seem to be such a happy one after all. I didn’t think I could survive staying there. It was depressing. Was this what all couples were doomed to? Hating each other?
I remembered a relationship article I’d read which said that cars are one of the prime spots for couples to fight. I thought that seemed silly, until I saw that, once we arrived at Girasol, they got along better. Maybe couples just need their space. The fresh air of the countryside probably helped, too, after the depressing exhaust fumes and rattling of the dying car.
I helped them make lunch, wash dishes, gather wood and collect hazelnuts. Then Mick and Veronika practiced their juggling act by the broken-down circus van they had once traveled Europe in. It was fascinating to watch the private show, both as entertainment and to see how close they seemed at that moment. They both juggled the pins individually. Then Mick walked up behind Veronika, she passed the pins to him, and they juggled together as one. They kept passing pins to each other, moving back and forth and sideways while weaving their arms together. Being the same height and both having dreadlocks, they looked like twins. It was incredible, especially knowing their romantic struggles. It was kinda sexy.
I survived the nights with Mick in the house. It wasn’t so bad, since he usually fell fast asleep in a drunk or stoned state. I tried to drift off first so I wouldn’t hear what was going on upstairs in the loft – Veronika and Mick had at least three months of make-up sex to catch up on.
Daytime was the hard part – he was awake and so was all of his energy. The next morning he wanted to make chutney, some English condiment that I’d never understood. The problem was that even if I tried to curry favor (ha ha) by helping him, he wouldn’t listen. I offered to mix the tomatoes through the strainer I had bought to make amazing Sicilian tomato sauce. But he whipped it out of my hands, jammed some tomatoes through, and broke it. I had bought it at the final summer market, and planned to bring it home for many years of pasta making. Now I might not be able to get one until the next harvest season, when we would be back stateside. This high energy, young-woman-stealing incarnation of Hades was not winning me over as he had Veronika.
When Carol left us for the tranquility of Piazza Armerina, Nikki and I headed to the Zingaro Nature Preserve. According to Nikki’s travel brochures, scenic cliffs and hills stretched down to quiet seaside coves. The government, in its wisdom, had planned to dynamite the hills to build a highway to Palermo in the 1970’s, but even in conservative Sicily the outcry from environmental groups had been enough to block the project. This led to the creation of the preserve. It seemed convenient for us, as the brochures mentioned a bus going all the way out there.
The scene seemed promising enough as we arrived in the nearby town of San Vito lo Capo. The city beach was bright white, and the unceasing sunlight cascaded over waving palm trees. The bus schedule indicated we had some time to kill before catching our connection into the country, so we strolled along the quiet boardwalk and kicked at the hot sand. We admired the picturesque red-roofed lighthouse in the distance. After a while, we decided we’d better head back to the bus stop. Despite the sea breeze and shade of the palms, it was hot and we were looking forward to a refreshing swim in an isolated grotto. I checked the time table posted at the bus stop. My stomach dropped. Why did everything have to be so difficult in Sicily?! Apparently we had overlooked an asterisk in Nikki’s brochure that said the bus stopped running for the season on September 1st. I was fuming, but Nikki just laughed and took it in stride. We got our thumbs out to hitch yet again.
We tromped through dusty garbage on the roadside, wincing at the roar of passing motorcycles. There were still a lot of locals heading to the beach, but none seemed to want to stop and pick us up. After a mile or so we finally got a ride with a woman visiting from Luxembourg. Most Sicilians assumed Nikki and I were Germans – there were usually more Germans in Sicily than Americans. Sicilians had mixed feelings about this. They still held grudges against the Tedeschi for the fun they shared back in World War II. They’d never quite bought the idea that the German Army had come to “help” their Italian allies in 1943. But our Luxembourgian friend eased our minds by offering us round-trip service.
As we piled out of the car into the crunchy gravel parking lot, the park attendant warned us that most of the beaches were closed. The African Scirocco winds, which peaked in autumn and spring, were high and causing rock slides and danger of fire. Lovely. Birds circled above us, probably buzzards. But as I gazed out over a low stone wall, the sea looked mythic and inspiring. I could envision Neptune and Triton down in the depths among the sea monsters. To the right of the beach path, the cliffs rose, splotchy brown and green with a sporadic cover of prickly pear cacti, ficchi di India or Indian figs. The red fruit was ripe and ready for the daring consumer. In Piazza, Artilio had reveled in telling the story of a clueless American GI he had met during the war. Supposedly the soldier, excited by the locals’ tales of the fruit’s deliciousness, popped a whole one into his mouth without noticing the spines. Chomping down, he let out a cry that echoed across the valleys. Whether this was true, or perhaps just an age-old story Sicilians told to belittle whoever was occupying their land at the moment, we couldn’t know.
Our path wound down the hill and split off toward different beaches. We went left to the closest cove, in which several people were sunning on blankets or splashing in the water. The waves were surging, and I wasted no time jumping in and body surfing into the rolling pebbles. Although I didn’t have Our path wound down the hill and split off toward different beaches. We went left to the closest cove, in which several people were sunning on blankets or splashing in the water. The waves were surging, and I wasted no time jumping in and body surfing into the rolling pebbles. Although I didn’t have goggles, I peered around under the surface of the clear water and marveled at the white, blue, gray, and green stones rolling back and forth with each crash of a wave. I dove deeper among the fallen boulders, until my ears threatened to pop. I was amazed by the colors. Used to swimming in the cloudy, sewage-and-fertilizer fueled algae blooms of the Chesapeake Bay, I was expecting the greens and browns I was familiar with. The seaweed that grew off the rocks and sprouted from the bottom of the sea waved arms of orange, green, yellow, and red. Surfacing and wiping the dripping hair from my face, I clung to a mussel-covered rock near the base of a cliff, and let the waves lift and drop me as I rested. I looked at Nikki, sunning herself back on the beach, as if she weren’t deliciously golden-brown already. I admired the few other bikini-clad women, with their slick-haired, bronzed boyfriends. Glancing down at my pallid goose-bumped skin, I was glad my sunscreen appeared to be holding up.
Having regained my equilibrium after the weightlessness of swimming, I was ready for more. I launched into a backstroke beyond the rocks. I floated on the swells, paddling in a mostly vain attempt to keep the wave crests from splashing up my nose. The travel doctor we’d visited in DC, before the trip, had warned us about many things, while pumping us full of anti-hepatitis Gamma Globulin, which nearly made me faint. In particular, she worried about the filthy state of the Mediterranean. But that seemed difficult to believe right now. I captured blissful moments when I was at one with the sea, a part of the earth’s living surface and sky. I felt the water cushioning me from the planet’s rock-heavy gravity yet providing a home amongst the tangible infinity of space. Deep, man. The cool of the water was a refreshing contrast to the sun’s heat on my face, as I watched the few tenuous clouds swirl and dissolve in the blue above.
I began to feel sufficiently water-logged, and my stomach started to growl for food, pulling me down from my lofty imaginings. I gave in to my fears of drifting too far out and started paddling back toward shore.
Shaking off and sitting down on the blanket next to Nikki, I rummaged through my pack for snacks. I let water drip off my hand onto the rounded rocks amongst the sand, amazed at how quickly it evaporated. After the sun had baked me dry, I diligently reapplied sunscreen. Nikki said she was probably ready to go soon, and it was close to time to meet our ride anyway. We packed and brushed off sand, then headed back, through the rocks, to the parking lot. I looked back at the cliffs and boulders, foreboding now as shadows fell across them and crashing waves echoed more loudly from the grotto walls.
We managed to get a ride all the way to the nearest city, Trapani. We found a hostel and collapsed for the night. The next day we slept late, then set out to explore. Nikki and I negotiated the cobbled streets with the help of our trusty tour books. Blue waves sprayed white foam as they slammed into the bleached walls of the city. We hugged the buildings of the market district warehouses and stalls, appreciating any slivers of shade in the bright afternoon heat. We visited the city’s old churches and castles and checked out its most famous sight, the windmill-powered salt-drying flats. We decided to head back to the hostel to rest our feet and eat. On the way, we stopped to shop for some food and supplies.
Then Nikki had a disillusioning realization. She couldn’t find her wallet. After frantically searching her pockets and pack, we hurried to our room and she rifled through everything else. After a lot of swearing and mentally retracing her steps, she figured she must have left it at the beach. I felt bad for her but also for myself. This seemed to take the wind out of the sails of our adventure and cast a pall over everything. She didn’t seem to be in the mood for seduction at this point. I suggested we try to get back out there, but she said, “Fuck, it’s not worth it.” She hadn’t lost her passport, but she’d lost most of her money. Rather than sit around in the growing gloom, I suggested she take a refreshing shower and see how she felt afterwards. To take our minds off the screw-up, we decided to see what night life the city had to offer.
Perhaps it was because it was a week night or because this was a provincial Sicilian city, there wasn’t much going on. We walked and walked, but each bar we passed seemed to be more dead than the last. I’d really hoped to get us drunk to foster something further between us. but I let Nikki’s mental clouds blind my brain as well. I started worrying about finances, and how was I ever going to have enough money to stay in Sicily for a year? We stopped in one bar full of colorful, enticing bottles, and I asked how much some shots would cost. Instead of realizing I should treat Nikki and cheer her up, I grumpily concluded that it was too expensive. I suggested we find a store and buy something to take to the hotel instead. After another long walk, we finally found an open market that sold alcohol. Carefully considering the prices, I opened the yellow-lit glass door of the shop’s beer cooler and pulled out a liter bottle of beer. It was only 1,100 lira, less than a dollar, and I should have gotten more. But it seemed big, and I figured we could share one. I guess I learned that penny pinching is even less sexy than ass pinching.
Back at the apparently empty hotel, we drank the bottle and talked, and I gave Nikki a back rub. I still didn’t see explicit signs of interest, so after the massage I retreated to my own bed. We didn’t have enough beer to overcome my fears. The room wasn’t very romantic, either, with dingy walls, hard beds, worn furniture, and broken tiles in the floor. We also had the company of a couple of flies I couldn’t seem to swat, despite chasing them around the room using my patented two-handed technique, designed to confound their compound eyes. Nikki was tired and wanted to get ready for bed, and I headed down the hall to the shower. I fantasized about things going better between Nikki and me. Apparently, I took too long, the drain didn’t work well and water began to spill out into the hallway. I trudged back to the room, skin bright red from all that time under the hot water. I got as comfortable as I could in my bed, turned away from Nikki, and tried to sleep.
We made one more stop on our little journey, to see the ancient walls of the mountaintop town Erice. I was nervous the whole time, partly because we’d arrived at the hostel during lock-out hours. Nikki convinced me to hide our packs out back, in some bushes, so we wouldn’t have to carry them around all day. I did so grudgingly, and my uncoolness didn’t gain me any more points with her. I was also anxious because I was working up my courage to put some moves on her. The hostel didn’t allow alcohol, so we had a couple of beers at a bar in town. Feeling sufficiently lubricated, I awkwardly told Nikki that I liked her. I was crushed when she just shrugged and said, “Well, it’s probably just because you haven’t seen an English-speaking girl in a while.” I guess it could have been worse. At least I felt some relief that I’d tried and failed. We caught a ride back to the hostel and played cards. Finally we went off to our respective genders’ dorms to listen to fellow travelers snore and fart all night.
So that was it. We agreed to abort the mission, packing up and heading back to Piazza Armerina and Carol. Carol would be disappointed in my inability to travel without her, since she had encouraged us to see Sicily’s west coast and Palermo. And I cringed to think how thrilled Giovanni would be to meet Nikki.
Giovanni surprised me with news that Rob had called, saying he and Nikki were on their way. I loaded up his car with a basket full of dirty laundry, and he drove me to town. Had Giovanni become my mom? Well not quite, as when I stripped down to wash every possible article of clothing, he took full advantage of my condition. As I got dressed the buzzer rang.
I squeezed Nikki like a college roommate best friend I hadn’t seen in years. I hugged Rob and whispered, “Did you get any action?” I shouldn’t have been too surprised when he said no.
After the tour, Nikki and I sang country songs in Giovanni’s apartment. We put in her cassette of country hits, and we all danced. We taught Giovanni the two-step. He looked goofy dancing again, but he enjoyed being a cowboy, the American icon.
Giovanni freely touched me now since I had told him Rob already knew about us. We danced holding hands even if I still felt a bit uncomfortable around my “ex,” Rob.
We camped out at Giovanni’s. He naturally suggested that Nikki and I sleep in his room, with Rob on the couch in the kitchen. “Couch” was a generous term, as it was more of a wooden trunk with a blanket over it. Giovanni had a happy spring in his step now, with two exotic women around. Plus he liked feeling like one of the Americans, part of the land of his dreams.
Grandpa Joe and Grandma Nettie also flouted our Sicilian heritage when they decided to elope. Grandpa Joe was thrilled – they were married and could finally have sex. Grandma didn’t see things that way. They were not truly married unless it was in an official church ceremony. So two weeks later, they eloped again, this time to a Catholic church instead of a justice of the peace. They finally told her parents and were ready to start their new lives together. But Papa Nick would have no part of it. He demanded the marriage be annulled. He gave Joe an earful of nasty comments, accusing him of making his daughter into a worthless slut and whore. Grandpa Joe stood his ground. “Never talk to my wife like that again.” Then he took her away. He was not going to share her with anybody.
Giovanni didn’t like sharing his American ladies either and decided to hide us away at his family’s country home. In Sicily everyone lives in apartments in town, but outside the city limits they lounge around in country homes all summer. They have long Sunday dinners, plant bountiful summer gardens, and harvest tomatoes. During the rest of the year, the country homes are used for illicit sex.
Giovanni was a TV addict – he normally stayed up to watch all the late late shows, and had an extensive collection of movies. Now, at the vacation house, there was no TV. Instead we relied on the magic in the Sicilian air. We acted out skits and played charades and other party games. I found it much more entertaining than any TV show I had ever seen.
We had so much fun each night that we didn’t go to bed until Giovanni’s normal bedtime, around three in the morning. Rob slept upstairs, and Nikki and I were in the double room downstairs. Across the dining area from us, Giovanni slept in the single room behind the kitchen.
The next few days were the same, relaxing and fun. They were filled with rough-housing games: water fights, wrestling, and chasing. We played card games and lounged around reading in the hammock. And since it was Italy, there was plenty of food. Giovanni made his self proclaimed famous eggplant parmigiana, which took hours. As I helped him in the kitchen, Rob and Nikki took a walk. So Giovanni and I made out next to the fridge. Rob must have felt the sex in the air, because later that day he asked if I could sneak upstairs to be with him. It sounded like fun. One lover to sneak around with downstairs and the other upstairs. This was the life.
But there was trouble in paradise. I still felt like a one-man-at-a-time woman, and didn’t want to risk making Giovanni feel jealous, so I never took Rob’s offer to sneak upstairs. Instead I got hurt and jealous.
It started with an innocent drinking game of “I never.” Everyone was supposed to drink if the statement applied to them; the traditional college goal was to stay in control while getting everyone else drunk. We all asked sexual questions. Giovanni blew us out of the water with his experiences. We should have known – he was both older and Italian. I quickly found out it’s not a good game to play with your lovers. Rob loved it and was almost rolling on the floor at Giovanni’s matter-of-fact answers.
“Where’s the strangest place you’ve masturbated?”
Both Rob and Giovanni made disturbing revelations. But the worst was when Giovanni said, “I’ve never slept with three lovers in one day,” and took a sip of beer. Either he didn’t understand the rules or didn’t care if he got a buzz too.
I raised the ante by saying, “I’ve never slept with three lovers in one day during the past two months.” No one took a sip, except Giovanni. I soon ended the game. I was burning inside. I was just one of the crowd. Just another notch on his bedpost.
The next night I got another sucker punch. Giovanni said he had to go into town to talk to some people about work and would be back later that night. Since the house was only a mile out of town, Nikki and I took a walk and picked up some groceries. As we headed back to the house, I saw Giovanni’s car and waved. I shouldn’t have looked, because next to him was a passenger. A woman.
This was the second time I had seen the other woman. Or I should say, one of the other women. It was too much. I wanted to cry. Luckily, I had a girlfriend right next to me offering a shoulder to cry on.
We walked and talked and kept walking and talking. As we strolled through the country neighborhood, we didn’t realize how late it had become, and we saw flashing lights. It was the carabinieri. We walked onto the grass to let them pass, but they didn’t. They stopped. They had stopped to arrest us.
“What are you doing here?”
“We are taking a walk.”
“Why?” I turned to Nikki. “Should I tell them why? Is it their business? I’m upset, about a man.”
These Italian Carabinieri had no sense of humor. “Your passports.”
We didn’t have our passports. We were just out for a walk. I explained that we didn’t have them, and with inscrutable expressions, they agreed to follow us back to the country house.
We ran to the house and yelled at Giovanni and Rob to wake up and come out. It was two in the morning, and they were fast asleep. Giovanni came out to help us talk to the police. We showed them our passports. I was worried since my tourist visa was about to run out. Giovanni said we were just visiting and staying at his country house. They explained that a neighbor had called, after hearing voices so late at night, and assumed we were burglars. Maybe that’s why Italians only take their walks, “passagiatas,” around town, and only for an hour every evening. Any other walks are suspect. The carabinieri left satisfied that we weren’t going to steal anything from the vacant country houses.
We all joked about what would have happened if we were arrested. What was life like in a Sicilian jail? Would the food still be good?
Rob and Nikki went to sleep. Giovanni leaned back onto me, on the couch, and I massaged his neck. He led me to his room but noticed I was cold.
“I’m not feeling good. I know you were with another woman.” “You have a right to feel this way.” He seemed guilty and sad.
“I just want to feel special. Not used.”
“I told you, I’m a lupo solitario. A lone wolf. I’m not normal. I like to have sex every day.”
I crawled into bed with Nikki and thrashed around, tossing and turning, for hours. I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. As other pathetic people know, the only solution was to go to Giovanni and make everything right. I went to his room and nuzzled up to him. We slept together and woke up touching and exploring. It was leading up to the big bang when we heard one from the kitchen.
Rob had gotten up to fix himself breakfast. He was clattering around in the kitchen, and something inside me ripped open, tapping into a deep well of anger and frustration. Rob had ruined our moment. He was ruining everything. He was a deadweight. A pain. A bother. I was sick of it. I just wanted to run in there, even though I was naked, and tell him to shut up, let me and Giovanni fuck, and get the fuck out of my life. I didn’t know where the anger came from, but it was boiling. Luckily Giovanni literally held me down and helped me regain my calm, and then we concentrated on a way I could run back to my room and get dressed without Rob noticing. I had the chance when he walked outside. I got dressed and joined him.
“Rob.” I ventured quietly.
“You woke me up. All that noise in the kitchen.” “I was hungry.”
“I’m just tired of all this. I told you to find a place to live, and you’re still living with me. Still depending on me.”
Nikki walked outside, so we ended our argument. As we ate breakfast it dawned on me – I was probably so depressed and moody because I was on antibiotics. That realization made me feel better.
When I stepped out for a walk, safely in the light of day, Nikki reported that Rob was walking around the house saying, “How could she hear me in the kitchen?” Our official bedroom was on the other side of the dining room. He was catching on to how I’d heard him so early in the morning. He was starting to figure out why I hadn’t joined him upstairs for a romp – I’d had other engagements.
I was grateful to stay at Giovanni’s “country” home, so I could put off finding my own place. It was a fanciful two-story brick house with gothic arched windows and a castle-like crenelated roof. I had bought some oil paints, canvases, and brushes, and I took the opportunity to work on some art. Nikki looked at the picture of an Italian cigarette pack I was painting, and her “Bravo, Rob!” made my heart soar. Maybe there was hope for my art, and my ability to impress women, after all!
Giovanni and Carol stocked the tiny fridge in the miniscule kitchen, and Carol gave me the evil eye for not helping. I knew I deserved it for being passive-aggressive, but I was angry at her for not putting out.
Giovanni turned on the water, provided by a rickety old pump out back. On good days it filled the house with an annoying whirring sound, and whenever a peaceful quiet descended, we knew it was a bad day and the pump had quit. Giovanni gave me a manly tutorial on how to caress it just right to get it going again. I wondered why he, an electrician, had never bothered to replace the whole thing. Maybe it was Sicilian pessimism. But when he got to work in the kitchen, with his Italian bachelor skills, his talents shone. Giovanni created tremendous feasts.
I was tormented, though, by the constant ache to be with Nikki. I had lingering hope that maybe I hadn’t screwed things up totally and there was still a chance. It seemed rather dim. Nikki had met one of Giovanni’s other bachelor brothers, Fabio, and she seemed smitten by him. She was certainly tolerating his advances. He was a fitness trainer, taller than me and with bigger biceps. Great.
Carol and Giovanni were having issues, so at least I wasn’t the only one with a touch of misery. Carol still wouldn’t sleep with me. It took all my charm and newly-learned Italian move-making skills just to get her to kiss me a little. I guess there was a reason Charlie Brown cartoons always felt too close to home for me to enjoy. I seemed to be a loveable loser.
One early October day, Giovanni thought it would be nice to get us out of the emotional pressure cooker of his country house. The weather was still holding, so we headed to Naxos and Taormina in his rattling old Subaru wagon.
It was dusk as we strolled the old city streets of Taormina, still full of tourists. We were surprised that, in the crowds of Germans and Northern Italians, we saw people we knew, Mick and Veronika. It was a small island after all. We watched their juggling spectacle. I helped pass the hat so they could make some money. I was glad to finally feel somewhat helpful. The show was good. They threw pins to each other and juggled. Then they played with fire. Just like in their relationship.
While we had been sitting on the beach earlier, I’d listened to the waves’ heartbeat and felt the eastern wind. I thought the Earth was telling me it was time to have a baby. It seemed like the same strange force that had brought me to Sicily and to Giovanni’s door. My fear of an STD ruining my fertility had forced my biological clock to clang.
Aunt Kay had other ideas. She had sent a care package full of birth control, which we picked up in Catania on our way to the beach. It was stuck in customs. The officials opened it in front of us, and Nikki and I giggled as they pulled out bright orange prophylactics. We were sternly informed that perfectly good condoms were available in Italy, and no other imported pharmaceuticals were allowed. So we could not take the package or any of its contents with us. Aunt Kay had included some jewelry, could we take that? No. There was a videotape of American TV, could we take that? No. Does the Italian post office make any sense? No.
Nikki decided she’d had enough, and she should continue her travels around Europe. We didn’t have a big goodbye. She spent most of her last couple of days with Fabio, while I gave in to the rash that’d been spreading on me ever since the agritourist hotel in Menfi. Was it from the mysteriously smelly water, or just anxiety? I took a long scalding shower at Giovanni’s apartment, back in town, to silence the itch, but only succeeded in flooding his bathroom. Nikki, meanwhile, was downstairs in Fabio’s apartment. I hoped the water dripped on their heads.
The next day, back at Giovanni’s town apartment, we packed up our belongings and dropped our bags in a pile on the floor. Rob organized his stuff to move to Valle Perfetta. Nikki packed to return to Rome and finish her babysitting assignment. I got ready to live with Giovanni’s Danish friend, Ulla, who was married to a Roman named Carlo, and to help with their two sons, Samuele and Emiliano, aged ten and four. Just as the male sticker back fish I’d seen on a late night nature show makes a nest for his mate, Giovanni had arranged it all. Giovanni had found a place which still gave him access to me but was not too close to his Lupo Solitario lair.
The October morning when Rob was due to arrive at his new home, we walked Nikki to the bus stop. We hugged goodbye and promised to write. She tentatively planned to return during her next break.
As I walked in the misty blue-gray autumn air, leaving the bus that was stealing our Nikki away; I knew it was the end of another era in Sicily. But I was here for a good reason, living in the land of my ancestors. I pondered that as I walked by a short tan, wrinkled old Sicilian man in a dress jacket. Typical Sicilian looking man on the island I had chosen to return since my Sicilians had chosen to leave. I spent the rest of the evening in the backstage theater booth where they needed a sound tech, with Giovanni’s hand on my leg.
Finally, to accommodate both our interests, Carol planned a trip to the province of Agrigento, her family’s old home, which also boasted Greek temples and quiet beaches.
Before we left on our trip, Carol had something she wanted to talk to me about. Walking through the town’s medieval streets, she led me to a bench in the park. She said she hoped I wouldn’t hate her, but since we had been apart for six weeks, and I hadn’t written or called often, she’d been so bored and lonely she’d let herself be seduced by a Sicilian. She wanted to try to be just with him. I was surprised but also, somehow, relieved. Traveling for a year seemed to open up so many possibilities that the way we’d huddled together in the cold and dysfunction of Minnesota no longer seemed relevant.
Carol’s resolve to be a serial monogamist didn’t last too long though. We began renewing our physical acquaintance shortly thereafter in the free-love atmosphere of Girasol’s quilted blankets. Giovanni and I would have to learn to share.
Annabella drove us to town for our bus. We quickly said goodbye, and I hustled Rob along so we wouldn’t miss it. We bickered all the way. He hated to be rushed.
How can he be so irrational? You can’t expect to sleep all day when you are a world traveler. How else are we supposed to catch the only bus of the day?
We sat and pouted and wondered why it was so hard for us.
After a few miles of torched grass and medieval café colored towns peering down on us over the tall hills, we calmed down a bit. We vowed to try to respect each other’s communication styles. The bus stopped at the train station in Catania, so I said hello to my new barista friend Massimo, who served me another of my beloved granita di mandorla drinks. I just couldn’t seem to get enough of all the almond flavored concoctions in Sicily. Annabella told me that in Ayurvedic medicine, almonds were believed to increase your self control and calm your mind. I certainly could use more of those qualities here.
Giuseppe and Flaminio didn’t make us wait too long. They were just as friendly to Rob as they were to me. Or at least I thought so. Later Rob said he never really liked Giuseppe and felt it was mutual. More manly competition and jealousy games?
Giuseppe, Flaminio, and Deborah drove us up the mountains to give us a tourist’s view of the beach at Naxos and of Taormina, the town on the hill above. The view of Etna, with her constant volcanic steam, was gorgeous. Postcards always show the cliff diving into the Mediteranean and Etna cautiously watching through her clouds in the distance.Past Taormina we reached the town of Milo where we planned to spend the night at Giuseppe’s vacation home. Milo lies halfway up the mountain, I assume in lava distance from the volcano. Instead we found the weekend renters still there. It was past their checkout time, but they rudely let us know they didn’t intend to leave. I guess they didn’t mind not being invited back next season. No problem, Giuseppe’s family had another vacation home on the beach at Naxos. We were a bit surprised at this opulence. All of these houses were only thirty minutes, at most, from their big city home in Catania. What did they need to vacation from so badly? We didn’t realize the Sicilian tradition of “getting out to the country.”
We met and talked with Giuseppe’s parents, then went out to listen to the waves and see the stars up above. There they were, still arranged in the constellation patterns laid out by the Greeks, from this very area, 3,000 years before. Night fishermen ventured out in their bright blue and yellow boats to hunt down swordfish with the unfair advantage of spotlights. Yellow lights reflecting on the water as the fishers peer in for their prey. The waves swishing around the boat and gently smashing into the sand. The sea quiets for the night as the tourists move to night clubs instead which now stood empty with the summer rush back in school.
More friends joined us for pizza. Naxos was a tourist play area, like Daytona, but with much more class. There were discotheques, pizzerias, souvenir shops, and video arcades. The Sicilian boys laughed and played a nearly pornographic video game, leaving Deborah and me rolling our eyes. But in the back of the arcade was a platform filled by six trampolines, surrounded by wooden walkways. Giuseppe paid for our admittance and then proceeded to hurl himself from one trampoline to the next. I was laughing so hard it hurt as he flew through the air flailing his arms wildly. I climbed up and started jumping myself, so high that I feared losing the pizza I had just eaten. They couldn’t talk me into jumping from one trampoline to another – I was too worried about landing on the ground. Giuseppe jumped higher and farther than anyone. It was obvious he was the leader, always planning and suggesting what we should do next. I didn’t mind following along, for a change.
The next morning we all slept in and woke up casually. It felt like beach week again – the D.C. area after-high-school graduation ritual, a beach house full of people my age just being But Rob and I had to head on to Agrigento, and our friends had respectable jobs at banks and other branches of the bureaucracy. We made time for a quick brioche breakfast with sweet cream panna and a last dip at the beach. We threw sand at each other, screaming and laughing. I loved spending time with them. Pure fun and no drama whatsoever.
They dropped us off at the bus station in Catania. Rob waited while I ran next door to the train depot to compare times and prices. I discovered that it was cheaper to get to Papa Pete’s birthplace, Menfi, by train. And since I was alone, a Sicilian man discovered me. He started talking, and at one point he said he was 40. When I looked at his big belly, I almost laughed thinking I was actually sleeping with a guy his age. Of course, being a man, and a Sicilian one at that, this guy was hoping for the same luck as Giovanni. I distinctly mentioned my “boyfriend,” and I was almost surprised that it worked. Unlike Giovanni, this guy gave up and conveniently said he had to go.
When I went back to the bench where Rob was guarding our backpacks, the first thing I said was, “Rob, give me a big kiss.”
He obliged but immediately said, “Who are you trying to avoid?” I must have clearly taught him about horny Sicilian men.
The train ride was a disaster; a two-hour trip turned into five. We stopped at every run-down station which looked like it hadn’t been used since the last century, when Papa Pete had left this country. So this is why the train was so cheap. Yet, I enjoyed seeing the grapevines and hills on the way to my ancestral land. Since it took so long, we knew we couldn’t make it to Menfi that day, so we got off at the city of Agrigento and planned to catch the bus connection the next day.
My guide book told us about a cheap hotel within a few blocks. We walked by beige buildings and churches and checked into the hotel to drop off our heavy packs. Rob was grumpy, but he perked up when we passed a building protected by sandbags and soldiers. It must have been another government building under siege by the Mafia. Always the war geek, Rob admired the guards’ submachine guns and jaunty Robin Hood-style feathered hats. He learned that they were Alpini troops, and he shared this information with me, finding an indifferent audience.
We still had a little bit of time, that afternoon, before the temples closed. Hopping a local bus to the Greek remains outside of town, Rob hurried through the temples so fast he shocked me. He was a sloth when it was time to wake up and get on a bus or train, but he raced through sightseeing, suddenly in a hurry. I told him he must have misunderstood me and thought that we were going to the Greek Olympics rather than the temples. We got to watch the red glow of the sunset fade over the temples and darkness fill them before the security guards prodded us out at closing time.
We promptly caught the wrong bus back to town, so I went into a police station to ask directions. What a hot Carabinieri I found at the desk, chiseled chin, blue eyes for a change, contrasted to his typical Italian black curly hair. In a uniform, he seemed like a stereotypical Italian Stallion. He took my breath away. He told me he was from Milan and didn’t like Sicily – this was not the right thing to say to me, but I’d let Mr. Blue Eyes’ distaste for my favorite island slide. After some small talk, he offered to meet me at my hotel that night.
When we finally found the hotel, we also found a blond girl, at the door, wearing shorts and smoking a cigarette. Her dirty blond hair didn’t seem like the pure German type. Her casual clothes appeared more the less fashionable of our continent versus this one. And her thighs had meat on them unlike the European women who somehow pulled off a no fat diet, or at least that’s what their bodies looked like. We paused for a moment.
“Look, Rob. A tourist like us. I bet she’s American.” “How do you know?” “The way she’s dressed, her blond hair.”
We just shrugged and walked past her to our room and went out again to eat some spaghetti at a nearby trattoria. I never understood the difference between a trattoria and a restaurant. They looked the same to me – you sit down and a waiter serves you food.
When we returned, the blond with the shorts and muscular legs was there again. Everything about her screamed she was from our neck of the world.
“Should we ask her?” Rob dared me. “What if we offend her? Maybe she’s British or Italian. “What should we speak?”
“Ask her if she speaks English, in Italian?”
So I walked over and tried, “Scusa, parli inglese?” “Sorry, I don’t speak Italian.” “Are you American?” “No.”
I looked over at Rob — we had offended her.
“Canadian.” “Oh. I’m Carol and this is Rob. We’re from the states. Washington DC.” “Vancouver. I’m Nikki. Am I ever glad to meet you guys. I haven’t spoken in three days!” She was warming up to us. What a relief.
“What are you doing here in Sicily?”
“I’m a nanny in Rome. They told me how pretty Sicily is, but I’ve been traveling for days, and no one speaks English here. I didn’t learn as much Italian as I’d expected, being with the baby. ”
That’s how we started a new threesome, me, Rob, and Nikki. Now the odds were on Rob’s side.
Normally I would’ve been thrilled to see some ancient Greek temples. But after a tiring day of traveling across the whole island, Carol’s enforced tourism didn’t put me in the best of moods. I felt worse when I realized I had lost Carol amongst the temples. She had wandered off to get us some ice cream, and then the great adventurer couldn’t find me. She ate my ice cream too, since it was melting, and now she felt like a pig. And I felt like a jerk.
My spirits picked up when we met a young girl named Nikki back at the hotel. I assumed she was tired of jokes about the Prince song, so I restrained myself. She had a tan that made my easily burned skin jealous, plus blond streaked hair, a perky button nose, and a cute Canadian accent. She was the first North American woman besides Carol I’d seen in over a month. And I was too shy and tired to talk to her. Carol wasn’t though.
Nikki’s room was cheaper without a shower, so we let her use ours. I was fostering some hopes, but nothing happened. What was I expecting, some scene from a porn movie? We should get to know her first. The water squeaked on, there were sounds of lathering, and Nikki finally emerged, flanked by clouds of steam. She patted her dripping hair with a towel, her skin warm and pink. She said thanks and, in her shorts, tank top and sport sandals, left for her room. Carol and I joked about who might seduce her first.
Nikki told us that some hot carabinieri came to her room earlier and she had no idea why. She was a little worried but figured all her papers were in order. I laughed. He had come earlier than he had promised, looking for me. The reception desk had sent him to Nikki by mistake. I guess any North American would do.
The three of us strolled around the old town together. Rob ducked into an alley to pee since there were no bathrooms around. Just then a car pulled up, with faces I recognized from the police station.
“Nicole! Carol!” It was the carabinieri’s friends. He had sent them on patrol to look for us. When Rob emerged from the alley, zipping up his fly, they were probably disappointed he wasn’t another girl. We all piled into the Fiat, and they drove us to see the temple skyline. As we walked to the temples, they told me that the police officer had lied – he was married and had lived in Sicily his whole life! Oh well. At least we got to see the temples again, in a different light. Even if they were, according to the bilingual sign, “clos – id.” I was starting to learn how little English Sicilians knew, and how annoying it was when they tried to speak it. They seemed to feel they were brilliant linguists when they managed one mispronounced word. When Rob, Nikki, and I spoke English, they had to butt in with, “Whats? Whats?” I wanted to yell “That word doesn’t exist!” At least it was the perfect environment to learn Italian, unlike Rome and Florence which were so flooded with foreign students there was no one to speak Italian to.
That evening I was hoping to get drunk and see what might happen with Nikki, but no luck. We couldn’t find any bars open late, in our neighborhood, or even shops that sold wine or Moretti beer. As we walked around, Carol met up with some local guys she knew – she seemed to know people everywhere! They turned out to be friends of some Rico Suave guy from the Carabinieri station that she’d made a date with. Sheesh. I wasn’t too happy when Carol decided we should take them up on an offer of a ride around town. We made it back to the hotel later, and though I liked the temples, I was glad to leave town the next day. Carol talked Nikki into joining us on the next leg of our adventure, further down the coast to her family’s old hometown of Menfi.
Papa Pete looms large in the family oral history. Mom always told stories of him bringing her to Coney Island. Aunt Kay, who escaped to California in the ‘60s and has been in therapy ever since, swears he is the only member of her dysfunctional family about whom she has good memories. She remembers the ice pops he bought. They had to keep pushing them up and lick them fast before they melted. Mom remembers going upstairs in the row house where Papa Pete and Grandma Grace lived. She sat on his lap while he dipped his bread into his egg yolk and shared it with her. She felt smug since she knew it was against her mother’s anorexic rules to eat egg yolk. Mom was born a rebel.
When she was pregnant with my older sister, the whole family was excited. But Papa Pete told her he was dying and would never meet his great=grandchild. Mom shrugged it off since he always said he was dying. This time his Sicilian superstition was true. He left this world in the spring, and my sister came into it that summer.
With all this history, I was nervous on the bus to Menfi. I was finally going to see the homeland. What would it be like? What would I feel? Would I sense more connection with Papa Pete? Would I feel more Italian? Would I know who I really was? I slept to calm my anxieties. First I said a prayer to tell Papa Pete I was back in his hometown and maybe he could get to know me now.
We arrived in Menfi by bus, having learned our lesson about the train, and strode across the litter-strewn cobblestone piazza. A homeless guy asked us for money, and I joked that he was Carol’s last living relative there. At the lone open café, we had a lunch of arancini, peas and veggies deep fried with sauce inside a teardrop-shaped ball of rice. A delectable treat for just due mile lire, about a buck fifty. Locals with dark sunlined faces under beretta caps stared at us, the rare stranieri. Carol charmed them with tales of her relatives from Menfi.
Carol found a phone to call the agritourist hotel, and in half an hour we were being whisked away from the beautiful beach into farm country. The proprietor was a woman of around 70 in the black mourning clothes of a widow, which were traditionally worn for ten years. Some Sicilians bemoaned the fading of this tradition – these days, younger women only wore black for several weeks. The owner told us the rules, gave us keys, and showed us our studio room on the ground floor, under the family’s quarters. It was furnished with a large bed, a cot, and a small kitchen. The bed was large enough for three; that was a good sign. I thought the water smelled funny, but the girls didn’t seem to notice or care about it. We showered, ate some bread and olives offered by our hosts, and settled in for our stay.
On our first full day in Menfi, I went to work. Rosa drove me into town and pointed me to the Casa de Commune, the City Hall. She introduced me to a fellow named Paulo who seemed to know everything about the town. I told him I was looking for documents about my great-grandfather and any family that may have been left behind. He told me to come back after he’d had time to look up the information.
I wandered around the town and couldn’t help taking photo after photo of houses destroyed in the 1968 earthquake. I was just aghast that, decades later, they still hadn’t been demolished or rebuilt. It was a big clue to the corruption of the Mafia and the inefficient bureaucracy of southern Italy.
I wandered around town and into the supermarket where I started a conversation with anyone I found, the cashier, the seafood vendor. My walk took me to the town cemetery, and I looked for “Marino” on the stones. I hadn’t realized what a common last name it was. I should have known, since Grandpa Joe used to joke, after he moved to Florida, that quarterback Dan Marino was his son.
Across from the cemetery was a flower shop. The twenty-two-year-old clerk gave me flowers since I was so “bella.” No matter where you turn in Sicily, there is a man ready to flirt, or to pounce.
I got lost trying to find Rosa’s office since all the streets looked the same. Luckily, it was a tiny town and I was the only American walking around in shorts and sneakers, so Rosa drove around and found me. We went back for lunch. It happened that it was Rob’s birthday, so I re-gifted the flowers. I couldn’t identify a flower out of a line up so when I gave them to Rob he said, “Aren’t these calla lilies, like they use for the dead?”
“Well, you are one day closer to death!”
I admitted that I got them near the cemetery, and was thankful that Rob had a dark sense of humor. We enjoyed Nikki’s version of Roman spaghetti, and I put a candle in a plastic-wrapped krumpkin, the only cake-type thing I could find at the grocery store. We sang in Italian, “Tanti auguri a ti.” He enjoyed the attention and the Kit Kat candy bar I’d found in town, a taste of home.
After our leisurely lunch, it was time for Rosa and me to get back to work. We went to the town hall and found Paulo with an old tome. He opened it right to the name “Pietro Marino.” I couldn’t believe that I was looking at my great grandfather’s birth certificate, handwritten over one hundred years ago. From there, Paulo showed me his siblings’ certificates too. Wow, the whole family was at our fingertips. I was so happy one moment but disappointed the next. Paulo informed me that none of these people or their descendents were in town. I could’ve saved myself the heartbreak by asking my mother, who could have told me that all of his family followed him to New York.
In desperation I asked,
“Are there any distant cousins?”
Paulo didn’t think so. They gave me a cultural lesson on how real relatives are those people you have contact and intimacy with; Rosa said half of her family won’t even talk to each other. I figured I’d just create a new family in Sicily with nice families like Rosa’s. That night they did feel like family as they invited us up to the porch for dinner and gave Rob a real cake. Rob liked them because they were impressed with the slides he’d brought of his paintings, Sicilians seemed to love the arts. Rob was the typical artist visiting Italy, except he was nowhere near the famous museums on the mainland.
Without much else to do, we hitched and hiked to the beach, almost three miles away. I had been raised not to pick up hitchhikers and felt rather uncomfortable on the other side of things.
Since it was early September, most of the tourists who had made it this far had already left. We had a white stretch of beach all to ourselves. It was fortunate that we’d brought snacks, since all of the restaurants and bars on the small strip were closed. After picking a spot for our blankets, Nikki and Carol looked around. The coast was literally clear, so they dropped their shorts, ripped their bikini tops off, and ran into the waves. I enjoyed the sight but was deathly afraid. Was something really going to happen with us three? What should I do? What if I screwed it up? The pressure was too much.
I was shy but eventually joined in. I waded into the warm blue water and body-surfed the waves until I ran aground and got sand in the Speedos that our Catanian friends had given me. I made a goofy show of shaking it out. Horsing around intimidated me, for fear of seeming creepy and being rebuffed. I splashed around with them a while, then retreated to shore. Shaking off excess water, I sat on our blanket and dried in the luxurious sun. Nikki and Carol finally came back, but by then I was starting to worry about harmful rays. I picked up my book and travel journal and strode off to the safe shade of some small trees at the edge of the beach. Carol seemed incredulous, but Nikki just shrugged it off, sat back, and put on her sunglasses. As the blinding sun kept moving, I had to change position and eventually ended up backed against the peeling wall of a house amongst some shrubs. I disturbed an ant colony, and six-legged explorers were soon crawling over me and my things. They were followed by some eight-legged predators. Why did I have to be such a weirdo? I toughed it out for a while, out of principle. Fortunately Nikki and Carol decided to leave after a bit, wanting to look for some lunch, the elusive pranzo. After hiking the long road up the cliff, we finally found a lonely shop and got some sodas and ice cream cups from a bored clerk. For hitchhiking, Carol suggested I keep my back turned to passing cars. She figured drivers might more readily pick us up if they just saw my long hair and thought we were all women.
Carol informed me that, surprising as it might seem, Sicilian men were actually much more restrained with women than their compatriots in the rest of the country. Men here could never be sure if a woman might be the love interest of some Mafioso, and copping a feel might lead to losing more than just your hand. Which of course meant that tourist women were fair game.
The next day we did it all again. This time we got a ride in a comfortable air-conditioned tourist bus on its way to a beach-front hotel. We told the driver he looked like Neil Diamond with his sideburns and sunglasses, and he seemed to approve. He was very personable, especially with the girls. He gave Carol tips about the hotel complex. As there were few foreigners around who weren’t staying at the hotel, we easily passed as guests and used their pool and hot tubs. Nikki and Carol had brought a boom box, and they gave the bus driver a thank you show of American line dancing to one of Nikki’s country-western mixes. I wished I were so free spirited.
After enjoying the hotel’s amenities, we slipped down to the beach. Being a military history buff, I was ecstatic to find an old concrete machine gun bunker, left over from World War II. It was filled with rocks, so I could only pose for pictures in front of it; I grabbed a piece of driftwood to hold as a pretend gun. This bunker had probably never seen action, at least not the warlike type. General Patton’s invasion of Sicily had come, several miles down the coast, at the industrial seaport of Gela. Another of Carol’s illicit escapades, with a motorcycle-riding rogue named Lucio, had also taken place there. But I would learn about that later.
At this quiet beach, near sunset, a couple of guys came trotting by on shiny black horses, kicking up hoof-fulls of sand. They were strikingly dressed in white with tall black riding boots. Jesus, I thought, could these Italians stop being so debonair? I could see Carol and Nikki practically swooning over them, and if they stopped, I didn’t stand a chance. Fortune was on my side, however, and they just glanced over then trotted on. I was relieved that they didn’t offer to take the ladies off my hands for a little jaunt on horseback. I needed to get my A-game going.
Behind us, in a fenced-in area, a lonely donkey stared at us. I picked some beach grass to feed him, trying to judge which would be the tastiest strands. I gave him some sympathetic words and a scratch on the nose. Carol loved the forlorn beast, it reminded her of her great-granddad Papa Pete’s stories of the wild Sicilian donkeys. She found meaning everywhere. It was my birthday, so I tried to count my blessings. On a Mediterranean beach with two naked coeds! The future was still alive with possibility. The three of us took turns burying each other in the sand, and I exercised my artistic license to sculpt huge breasts for them. They returned the favor and fitted me out with an impressive sand phallus. The feel of their hands caressing the warm sand above me was delicious.
After a swim, we packed up and headed back to our hotel. Along the quiet roads, under the violet evening clouds, we plucked succulent grapes from the vineyards. A thin moon rose in the cooling air over the hills. This did seem to be an idyll after all. Maybe I wouldn’t stay frustrated forever.
To pass time on our long walk, I made up lyrics for songs I knew, Weird Al style. I kicked it off with my version of Confederate Railroads’ “Queen of Memphis”:
“I saw donkeys – dancing by the water. I saw temples – left here by the Greeks. That blue Mediterranean was my witness – the night I fell in love with the Queen of Menfi.”
The girls loved it.
The night seemed full of promise. A car even came along, and we were offered a ride the rest of the way. But we got held up for quite a while as a shepherd led an endless flock of sheep across the road in front of us. Carol hopped out to take pictures of this priceless cultural event.
Our time in Menfi was simple – start walking to the beach, catch a ride, enjoy the waves and sand, and hitch a ride home. I loved the distraction from worrying about Giovanni. Every ride we took was a different adventure. One time a trucker picked us up as we tried to go, on the Autostrada, to the “big” city of Sciacca. We loved his huge truck but he seemed to switch gears way more often than necessary, and each time he accidentally touched my knee. Eventually he gave up even that pretense and just started grabbing. I told Rob and Nikki, in English, that we had to get out. The driver kept groping me even as we made our escape. We laughed until we realized we were stuck on the Autostrada with cars zooming by at 70 miles per hour. Another truck finally stopped, and we warily got in, deciding that, from then on, Rob would be the one to sit next to the driver. Ironically, in the second truck we didn’t have to worry – the driver only had one arm.
Our beach life was pure fun. Nikki and I skinny-dipped whenever we could, and we hid Rob’s Speedo so he’d have to. I don’t think he minded being nude with us in the water, but he hurriedly dressed whenever people walked by or rode by on a horse. It was obvious to Nikki and me how different Rob was from Sicilian men. He worried about being naked in front of strangers and always wanted to respect women and not offend anybody. So different from the ugly old, fat Italian men who just assumed you wanted them.
When we made it to town, to check out the small weekly market, we found out we already knew half the town from catching all those rides. I was happy to feel at home in my family’s original hometown. After all of the naked swims and soaking up the “magical” air of Sicily, Rob and I figured we could really have a threesome with Nikki. Maybe crazy dreams did come true here. We both liked Nikki. She was pretty, energetic, and easy to get along with.
We were in the midst of a game of strip poker. Nikki already gotten us to our bare bones. Rob and I looked at each other, our hopes were up but I couldn’t see if any other part of him was. Our kinky plans seemed to be going great when I heard Rosa’s mother calling my name from upstairs.
“Che?!” I was annoyed. What the fuck could they want? They continued yelling even though I kept saying I was busy. It was as if I were a teenager whacking off in his room. They wouldn’t quit, so I got dressed and went up.
They said I had a phone call from the United States. Oh, that. It was my conscience calling, better known as my sister, the doctor. She’d gotten my number from Mom, who had informed her that I wasn’t taking the antibiotics for my UTI or PID or whatever disease I might’ve had. Here I was, in Sicily, struggling to find family, but my family 4,000 miles across the ocean had somehow tracked me down to lecture me on taking my medicine!
It did make sense. My sister said I could get a permanent infection, infertility, or death. Fine. I’ll take the dumb pills. I hung up wishing I had never told Mom or given her this number. But I did want babies someday, and I didn’t want to meet Papa Pete in the great beyond yet.
Unfortunately, my prescription was back across the island in Piazza Armerina.
After a few days, Carol’s huge libido lost its battle with her Catholic/Jewish guilt. She was going to return to Piazza Armerina to take her pills. With a good natured wink, she urged Nikki and me to continue our adventure while the weather held. It sounded like a good idea to me. Without Carol to monopolize Nikki with her blinding supernova of personality, maybe I could make some inroads. Carol wished me luck.
So our vacation plans were ruined. I hurriedly tried to finish my family hunt. Rosa drove me fifteen kilometers into Santa Margherita de Belice, home of the other half of my family. Was it just coincidence that my grandpa, Joe Marino, met and married my grandma, Nettie Rabito, in New York City, while their parents were from neighboring towns in Sicily?
Unlike Paulo, in Menfi, the man at the City Hall of Santa Margherita had the mentality of an Italian postal worker – frustrated that you imposed on them to actually do their job. I came in with a smile asking about Catarina’s side of the family, the Cotones,and without even looking up at me he explained that those people are from Sciacca instead. Had I just been punched in the face? I didn’t see his hand just the top of his balding hair as he continued to pretend to work on paperwork. I know she was from Santa Margherita, that’s what my living sources had said (my Aunt Jo back in Florida). It was her mother. She knew. I knew.
I pleaded that I had come all the way from the US, could he please just look? With a sigh he stood up, opened some files across the room, and managed to find Papa Nick’s birth certificate in a long black book. He showed me the page for two seconds. Then he snapped it shut and refiled it before I got to read it. Molto grazie, jerk.
Since Rosa had some work to do there, I had time to walk around and check out the other town of my great-grandparents origins – the Cottones and the Rabitos families. This town also had ruins of the 1968 earthquake left for decay in the elements. One churches glory days could still be seen like a Greek temple eroding in the winds. It also was like any Sicilian small towns, sidewalks, cobblestone, stores.
I wandered into a tile store, attracted to the traditional ceramic patterns. I was shocked to learn that the woman who worked there just happened to be named Nella Rabito! Could she be a relative? Maybe Sicily had a way of working things out after all, you just had to give in and go with the flow. But in another twist, Nella called her mother and learned that their great-great-grandfather was not, in fact, Gaspare Rabito, Papa Nick’s father, who stayed in Sicily. So then we weren’t related, right? Nella was kind enough to tell me where some other Rabitos lived around town.
I knocked on the door of one of the Rabito residences. A tall, crow looking elderly lady, in the required widow black, answered with a “What do you want?” I think I killed her with my answer, that I was looking for my relatives. “Why do you want to know them? What do you want from me?”
I tried to warn her that I just wanted to meet relatives. No, I did not want money. I didn’t want any land. I had no cruel intentions. It was just American curiosity of my roots. I had been warned that some Sicilians were suspicious, untrusting, conditioned to questions everyone. From the days of the evil eye or all the family feuds, but I didn’t dare mention my secret desire to mooch off of new found relatives all year – but I had hippies in Piazza Armerina for lodging instead. I was told most Sicilians had lost their suspicions except the elder one I was currently standing in front of.
As I walked through the old lady’s door to the curb, a car pulled up. Nella honked the horn and waved exuberantly. Apparently, she called her father who confirmed that yes, their great grandfather’s uncle was named Gaspare. Her blond hair flying exceitedly, she told me we could be family. This Gaspare had gone to Argentina to work for a while just like my great great grandfather Gaspare. So, maybe we were related after all!
I jumped into the passenger side and she whisked me to meet her mother and father. They gave me hugs and kisses and welcomed me into her home. The mother had on an apron and wore short, black hair. Nela’s blond may have been natural Sicilian roots or dyed but it looked good either way. The father looked like a typical Sicilian from the movies – 60s, brown hair shagging over his head, white shirt. Very friendly and liberal with the family and town history.
We talked about their family and how so many relatives had gone to Argentina to work in the silver mines around the turn of the 19th century. Argento is even the Italian word for silver, because the country is so famous for it. Yet something wasn’t matching up. The Gaspare Rabito in their family was a generation off from my great-great-grandfather. I figured it must not be a match after all. They didn’t care either way. I was learning that Sicilians weren’t interested in genealogy. My American veins were pumping hard with the desire to find family and the old country, but these people had never left or known anything about a distant romantic land.
After thanking them and receiving hugs goodbye, Nella drove me to meet their cousin, Antonio Rabito, who ran a press factory. He was tall and lingering over me. Shaking my hand like any other customer that comes through. He was sucking on a toothpick and explained the family history as if he was selling me on that week’s prices at the factory.
They were pressing olive oil and wine at the time. Nella and her parents wanted to introduce us since he was the one who knew the family history best. What he said sounded familiar, like my family story – the Rabitos were originally “Rabbit’s who came from England.” I was excited. So we were family. Antonio wasn’t fazed by that news at all. But that and a lira got me a cup of coffee. He took me out for a quick espresso before he drove off.
Antonio said we were so distantly related that it didn’t matter, and there was no contact now anyway. With that cheerful thought, he went back to work, and I sat there, slumped, at the coffee bar. Left with my thoughts and dreams dashed of some tear filled happy reunion with the home countries’ relatives.The bartender must have seen my sighs and asked, “Where are you from?”
“The United States”.
“What are you doing in Santa Margherita?”
“My great grandparents were born here.”
“Wow, I would love to have relatives in America. I think we have some cousins in New York. How old are you?”
He was more interested in getting to know me than my “relatives” were.
Papa Nick Rabito and Catarina Cottone brought most of their family with them when they left Sicily. Yet they left a relative behind as caretaker to watch over the family’s plot of farmland and small house. During the 1940’s, legal paperwork flew back and forth over the ocean as my aunts and grandmother fought over the land. The caretaker had died, and his immediate family claimed that the land was now theirs since he had worked and lived on it for almost 50 years. I don’t know why my family thought they should try to reclaim property they had never even seen. We lost the case, and my mother warned me that I should never try to find family in Santa Margherita de Belice because they were still mad at us. They would assume we wanted the land back, and they might try to kill us. Luckily, right before I left, Great-Aunt Jo assured me that was all bull. No one would care now. She was right – Sicily had changed. It was much more modern, and perhaps more apathetic. Killing, curses, and family feuds are becoming a thing of the past.
I had lost the fight with my sister about taking my pills, though. And I was cursing myself for leaving my prescription back in Piazza Armerina. There had been plenty of room in my backpack for that little slip of paper. Now I had to spend the day schlepping on three buses, by myself, and end my “vacation” early. Rob would get to sleep with Nikki, and I wouldn’t.
My family, like many Sicilian Americans, had lived in Brooklyn. When I told one woman in Sicily that I had Sicilian ancestors in Brooklyn, Papa Pete and Papa Nick, the first thing she asked was, “Oh, were they barbers?” And they were, like her own American relatives. But if everyone in the Sicilian community went into the hair cutting business, who was left needing a haircut?
Papa Nick’s brother, Andrea (Andrew for us Anglophones), also moved to the states. The two brothers loved to hunt rabbits together. This was odd since their last name was Rabitto. Perhaps it’s some perverse Oedipal instinct to kill your namesake. They spent weekends in Connecticut blasting away at the little creatures and not doing a very good job of it. My mother remembers picking out the buckshot while trying to eat them.
They loved Connecticut so much that Papa Nick decided to move there. They left their row house in Brooklyn for a real single family home in the country. It turned out disastrously for my grandmother. The youngest and most sensitive of the girls, she now had to contend with being an ethnic minority. In Brooklyn everyone was Italian or at least an immigrant. Now she was different. She had an accent. She was a Wop, a Guinea, a Dago. She was dirty, and her food was stinky. She immediately became ashamed of being Italian, and the shame never wore off. She never taught her native Sicilian tongue to her children, my mother and Aunt Kay. She never even cooked Italian food. Instead she prided herself on her inoffensive oatmeal. She also became anorexic which must have helped her shun the family’s Italian food. She rejected everything about her heritage. Now I was back in the old homeland trying to regain a part of what was once ours.
September finally arrived. All the town’s festivities were over, no more Norman costumes, concerts, or karaoke contests. It was harvest time. Rob and I woke up early and climbed up the valley to Marlies and Felippe’s where they were already busy making sauce. I enjoyed the tranquility of cutting tomatoes and hearing the buzzing of the machine smashing them into sauce. It reminded me of all-day jelly making in Mexico, and how I’d always dreamed of making tomato sauce in Sicily.
I listened to Sting’s songs, talked with Rob, and watched Marlies and Felippe run outside to stir the boiling sauce then pour it into bottles. I became tranchila, relaxed. The monotonous work of making food from the bountiful tomato harvest was soothing. I could feel the agricultural power of the island, which had been the “breadbasket of Rome” in the days of the Empire. There was something life-affirming about living off the land, in contrast to the modern nine-to-five suburban existence I’d known.
September also brought harvest parties and another celebration of new growth, Jewish New Year’s festivities. A few years earlier I had started reconnecting with the traditions of my father’s side of the family. He never celebrated them since his parents and grandparents were strict atheists and socialists. But it seemed a way I could connect with that side of my family history without joining the communist party. So now, in Sicily, I invited all the hippies I knew over for a Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year dinner party.
Preparations were hell. The supplies for so many guests were expensive and difficult to transport out to Girasol, in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t help that Veronika, Annabella, and the kids had returned to add more chaos. But at least Veronika had a semi-functional car.
I made Challah bread, and of course found out too late that I had again used the wrong Italian flour. Then I killed the live yeast by using hot water as I always had with dry yeast. I tried to fix the problem by adding more yeast and letting it rise by the fire in the oven. But it was no use. I had put Veronika and Fier in charge of baking the loaves. Fier claimed he knew what he was doing, since he was Jewish too. I’m not sure if it’s because they got distracted passing a spinelli around, but they burned all the loaves completely black. I just wanted to collapse and burst into tears. With great effort, I managed to rein in my emotions and even laughed a little when they tried to cheer me up. They pointed out possible uses for the charred bread such as American footballs.
I was afraid everything would go wrong and everyone would think I couldn’t cook. I felt like I had a big image to live up to. In my travels, people had often seemed meaner to Americans. We have such a big image in the world that they want to cut us down. I didn’t need to worry though; the rest of the food turned out fine. I spent the whole day cooking, and Rob even helped, at least when Veronika had to leave for some errand.
Everything was ready when Felippe and his son arrived. Artilio was already drunk when he stumbled in with an old friend of his from Gela. We all waited expectantly for Marlies and Veronika. Mick had called Giovanni, days earlier, to leave a message for Veronika. She was to be at Marlies and Felippe’s, at the appointed time, to receive a call from him in person. We were all dying to hear how the conversation had gone. But we were also dying of hunger.
Once they arrived we got down to business. Fier had all the men put on hats. I explained the holiday, and Fier said a Hebrew prayer blessing. That was a blessing to me since I knew zero Hebrew. We lit candles and ate some apple slices with honey. I passed a cup of sweet wine and tried to break off a piece of the rock solid Challah. I encouraged everyone else to do the same, and all around the room, guests started wrestling with the twisted bread, hacking at it with knives or banging it on the table. It worked as a symbolic gesture at least.
I felt fantastic celebrating Rosh Hashanah with all my Sicilian friends. They raved over the food especially the Matzo ball soup. Marlies said it was the best soup she had ever had. Wow. The miracle of cross-cultural cooking.
Artilio got even more wasted and started singing a melancholy song very loudly. We could barely hear the car pull up on the other side of the small valley. I saw the lights, though, and knew it was Giovanni. As livid as I had been when I’d caught him with his other lover, I was amazed at how much I wanted him to come and be impressed by the food. It turned out that he was sick to his stomach and couldn’t really eat. But I was happy he was there. He did try a bite of the honey apples and a sip of wine, while wearing a hat on his sacrilegious head to cover it before G-d.
For the rest of the evening, everyone talked outside around the fire pit. Felippe played guitar, and Artilio passed out. Fier took up the conversation with Artilio’s old friend from Gela. Fier liked to think he had the inside scoop on all the conspiracy theories of the world, and talking to old timers was, apparently, good research. He was so into it that Giovanni sarcastically whispered, “Fier has a new boyfriend.”
I half-seriously shoved Giovanni for being mean. And homophobic. Cleaning the dishes, I laughed to myself as Giovanni tried to coach Rob on some new Italian phrases. Italian lessons lead to trouble.
In our puritan American world, sex has consequences. Cheating means divorce. Teenage sex means pregnancy and poverty for life. And sex means STDs. Now it was puritan payback time.
The next day I traveled all the way to Catania to see the English-speaking doctor for my ongoing pain. He was actually very nice and not as condescending as I thought a doctor would be when discussing problems down there. His diagnosis was Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Fuck. For the first time I was finally having fun, and I got some horrid disease. The doctor said it was chronic, and I’d have to live with it the rest of my life. Double fuck.
Later I came to believe that it was misdiagnosed and was a simple urinary tract infection, which I would get occasionally in the years to come. Either way the punishment wasn’t as harsh as a true puritanical comeuppance would be.
The doc prescribed antibiotics that would take care of either PID or a UTI. But when I got back to Girasol, Veronika and Anabella told me all their conspiracy theories about antibiotics, so I didn’t buy the medicine. It seemed logical enough – why bother treating it if I was going to have it for the rest of my life anyway?
The kind, if misguided, doctor had even driven me to the train station in Catania. He asked why I chose to spend a year in Piazza Armerina since it was “boring and has one of the worst accents in Italy.” I told him I had just ended up there.
At the train station I decided not to catch a bus home right away but to have a little fun and call some guys I’d met at the Volcano Islands when the Lion’s Club host family had brought me there on their family vacation. I’d appreciated the family taking me in, but we were such a mismatch that I was bored even on our supposedly fun trip. Fortune had it that their cousin knew someone at a café there, and as they chatted I talked with her friend, someone who actually made me feel interesting. Unlike the host family, Guiseppe wanted to know all about America and me. Taking his phone number was the only wise decision I made all summer.
When I called him he was so thrilled that he told me not to move, they’d be right over. They weren’t right over. But I had time for a delicious almond pasta di mandorle cookie, a granita drink, and a conversation with Massimo, the cute bartender at the station café. He was tall and tan and reminded me of my Nicaraguan boyfriend from high school. I gave him my number at Giovanni’s house.
Giuseppe arrived, looking tanner and cuter. He said my Italian was now better than some Italians. How sweet. We talked about how our summers had been going and drove to an insurance office where his girlfriend Deborah worked. They had been together fourteen years and planned to marry someday.
We all went to a bar, and they bought me a type of sandwich, unknown to me, an extotic panini. Then, at the best gelato place in town, they gave me a kiss – Bacio – a chocolate and hazelnut ice cream. Visitors are told to find the shop by looking for the elephant statue with huge testicles. Italians love their manhood. They have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of words for the male parts. They can be used as compliments: “Che palle!” (that guy has balls!) or as curses, minchia! (Sicilian penis) or Catzo! (Italian for penis).
At the dawn of the 20th century, Catania commissioned a sculptor to create a larger-than-life statue of a bull elephant, the city’s symbol. After much anticipation, it was unveiled at a grand ceremony. At first there was great pride amongst the populace. Then a murmur arose, and it grew into an outraged cry. The elephant had enormous tusks, but no balls! What was the sculptor trying to say about Catanians? To save his reputation and possibly his life, he quickly returned to the studio and fabricated two palle. He welded on the two huge cannonballs that would have made walking impossible for any real elephant. The city cheered, and the legend was born. Across the street, you’ll find the best ice cream in the world.
After the history lesson we headed back to Deborah’s office, and Giuseppe called the two other guys I knew from Volcano: Sergio and Flaminio. Sergio was busy, and I actually never saw him again. Flamino gushed, “Mamma Mia, Carol!” when he spotted me as we walked into the bank where he worked. We looked at his pictures from the Volcano trip and howled at one which featured their three backsides in Speedo suits. That style never seemed to die out in Italy, it must be the best for showing off their manhood. After collecting Flaminio’s girlfriend, they drove me to the station since it was nearly time for the last bus. As it pulled away I watched out the window as they all started chanting, “Carol! Carol!” They sure knew how to make a stranieri (foreigner) feel welcome.
I hoped to return to see them again in a few days. Now that Rob was on the island and Veronika was back, Rob and I were going to tour Sicily like we had planned. I wanted to really explore Agrigento, where my family originated, not just smell the oleander with Lucio. Rob was looking forward to new experiences, or at least that’s what he said. I just wanted a vacation from all the drama and gossip of Piazza Armerina, and to get back to the original reason I came to the island, to find my family and its history.
The day before we left was almost perfect. I walked into town alone since Rob had been drafted by Fier to help haul manure. Ah, country life. So pretty, but so full of shit.
When I reached town, I stepped into the bank. The puzzled teller commented that I sure seemed to be on vacation for a long time. I explained my plan for staying a year and that he should get used to cashing American traveler’s checks.
Next I visited the farmacia on a mission for the stray dog that had started hanging around Girasol. Veronika had diagnosed the itchy skin that the mutt was biting off and sent me to buy some medicine. I didn’t mind helping a stray. A fellow traveler like me, relying on the kindness of strangers. A few months later, however, I would not think so kindly of stray dogs.
When I went to the post office, to send my usual round of letters, I bumped into a not-so-kind stranger. I was spotted by the lady who “worked” there, if that’s what you call it in the bureaucratic socialist post office where they avoid work as much as possible. She clasped her hands together as if beseeching God himself and said,
“Tu sempre scrive!” (“you always write!”) She really didn’t appreciate the extra work I made for her. I had to buy stamps, and this took time since, on every visit, the rules and prices seemed to change. There was no internet, so snail mail was the only tenuous connection I had with the friends and family back home who could help keep me sane. Well, except my mom and dad, who kindly let me call collect, but I couldn’t spill all my problems to them. The post office was a huge pain, and by the end of the year I vowed never to visit that Italian institution again without an Italian friend to do the dirty work for me. The horror of the post office is the main reason I sadly realized I might never be able to live in my beloved southern Italy.
The next chore of the day was to pick up my mail from the Lion’s Club youth leader’s house. His was the address I had given to my friends all summer, and there were still letters going there even though I had usurped Giovanni’s address. I tried to pick up my mail around lunch time since his mother was the best cook in the world. I ‘fessed up about my handmade pasta going horribly wrong. She tried to show me once again.
I mixed and rolled it and started to get a better feel for the process. But I was still much too intimidated to try it on my own again, especially if I had guests coming. I did master her amazing sauce though. I stayed for lunch, which was as miraculous as always.
Walking over to Giovanni’s, I mused about what a perfect day this had been. Eating a wonderful Sicilian lunch and, for dessert, the passionate embrace of my Sicilian lover. The island’s volcanic forces must have been in my favor.
I rode back to Girasol with Giovanni after a pleasant afternoon of laughing and joking. No drama, no frustration – things seemed to be getting better with him. He never seemed to want to dump me, just to keep me on the attendance rolls like his other lovers. He put his hand on my knee as we rode on the dirt road. He saw Veronika and yelled that he’d come fix her roof the next day. We said goodbye. I knew I’d miss him as we would be apart during my travels. He said he’d be here and nothing ever changes in Piazza Armerina. So I decided not to worry.
That night as Rob and I packed for the trip, we bickered the whole time. I worried about spending all this time alone with him. Were we going to be miserable? Why was it so nice with Giovanni and not with Rob?
I wrote this book a few years ago with the other main protagonist, Rob. It is our story of living in Sicily for almost a year. I thought I would publish it here since, like my book of Mexico, there was a community involved. In Mexico it was a positive experience and they weren’t intentional, just families and the lifestyle up in the rural mountains. Here, in Italy, it was the remains of a commune and ended quite badly for me. I thought cohousing would be different since it had a conflict management team. HA! I have also learned that I have a knack of pissing off groups of people.
All names have been changed.
Rob is an artist and I asked him to paint this when we returned. A mi of Greek myths (Sicily was their land), me(with grapes) and Rob(statue) with people we met as other Greek legends and some other interesting things and places we saw all over the island.
Chapter 1 – Welcome to Sicily
“…quattro, tre, due, uno….”
He breathed into my hair as he counted down. It was our attempt to cool the heat between our nearly-naked bodies. To him, I was another woman to seduce. To me, he was everything I’d come to Italy to find. Sicily, perilous island of the Mafia, evil eye curses, and our own family’s dramatic fight for a piece of land. My mother had warned me not to go there, or they’d kill me. They meaning our own turf-jealous relatives, since revenge never dies in Sicily. They meaning the Cosa Nostra. Or perhaps they were something else on this mysterious, distant island.
I was determined. This was my life dream. My very DNA seemed to scream for me to learn Italian. To understand why my mother always yelled “Mama Mia!” even though nothing else in our lives felt remotely Italian. And even, if I dared, to find my long lost relatives. If they didn’t find me first.
I wanted to be Sicilian. To taste Sicily. Feel Sicily inside of me, but my lover hadn’t made it that far yet. I didn’t want to be a cheater. I’d found Sicily and found a Sicilian. Was that my true destiny? Only weeks earlier, Rob had seemed to be my destiny. Dear, sweet Rob. Nice, faithful American Rob. Rob, whom I’d begged to come intern with me on the Native American Reservation, and he had. Rob, whom I fell in love with under the fireworks on the Fourth of July at the Washington Monument, just as I blossomed into womanhood at eighteen. Rob, who always insisted we were friends, while I longed for more. Rob, who finally, after half a decade, decided he wanted me too and agreed to follow me to Italy for a year. Now look how I was repaying him.
I decided to talk with my Siciliano instead of going any further with him.
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve always known I’d marry an Italian.”
His body sprang upright, and he carried me with him. “Non, e vero? (No, could that be true?) Me, I always knew I’d die in America!”
We looked at each other, and only the night answered with calls of crickets and toads. We kissed until we fell asleep. Spooky. Was this real? Was it actually happening? Was I meant to be with him and not Rob? Was that why I came here looking for my Sicilian family, to find a Sicilian man instead? And what would Rob think of all this when he flew in from his own summer trip to Germany, the homeland of his family? In two weeks, time would tell.
* Rob *
August 1996, day of arrival
I wondered if history had closed the book on Sicily. It seemed a desolate wasteland as I flew over brown hill after brown hill of roofless stone farmhouses. I could see newer construction projects too, abandoned in various stages of completion. Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp once declared one of his works of art “finally incompleted” when it broke. Maybe Sicily was its own living embodiment of absurdist art. Concrete highway overpasses reached for the sky and abruptly ended. It was as if everyone had suddenly left the stage, and the audience wasn’t sure whether to clap yet. Where were all the people?
They turned up soon enough, crowded into the crumbling postwar apartment blocks of Catania. There among the throngs, in her knock-off Ray Ban glasses, Carol met me with a huge smile and a hug. She immediately warned me never to say anything in Sicily if I saw a murder, or I would be the next victim. Then she asked about my flight. I described the abandoned landscape I’d seen. She laughed and said welcome to Sicily – life was so tough here that much of the population had emigrated over the centuries, either to Northern Italy, Australia, South America, or — like her family — to America. Anywhere was better than here. The newer unfinished buildings and highways I’d seen were the charming result of fund-siphoning by the Mafia.
Carol wanted to stop at a café in the airport, where the barista would give us complimentary drinks and pasta di mandorla, Carol’s favorite cookies since they were only made in Sicily. Carol figured the bartender should comp us, since she’d flirted with him as she waited for my plane to arrive. He eyed me warily as we walked in. So this is the American competition, he seemed to be thinking.Not too impressive.
Dropping my ridiculously large backpack, I flopped down at a table and bent over to tie a dragging lace on my dusty boot. Returning with frothy cappuccinos, Carol explained the journey ahead. First, we’d take a chain of buses leading to smaller and smaller towns, and eventually we’d arrive in Piazza Armerina. Then we would stop at a festival in town and get a ride to the place, in the countryside, where we were staying. I had arrived at the beginning of the Palio di Normani, the celebration of Sicily’s liberation from the Muslims. By the Normans, of all people. I guess they liked conquering little islands. After they took over England, in 1066, they went on a Mediterranean cruise, in 1072, and invaded Sicily. To this day there are more blond, blue-eyed Sicilians around the Norman capital of Palermo than anywhere else on the island. Light-skinned Sicilians, anywhere, are often known as Palermitani. I loved all these incongruities, like the sight of medieval-robed re-enactors flying down Roman streets on their brand-new Vespas.
We dropped off my backpack at a friend’s empty apartment and went touring. Carol pointed out the hole in the old city wall. This was supposedly where the Normans punched through the wall and attacked the town. A little-used road passed through it now.
After the day’s re-enactment of medieval life, we joined some hippyish friends of Carol’s on a dirty hill overlooking the town. It seemed to be a make-out point, with empty beer bottles and used condoms scattered around. From that moral high ground we watched the festival’s fireworks. This was the only part of the celebration the counter-culture types were interested in – certainly not the religious dedications that they found repulsive.
When the fireworks reached their denouement, Carol failed to come through on getting us a ride. I retrieved my backpack from where we’d stashed it. We headed out of the city, trudging for what seemed like miles into the middle of nowhere. Wandering like a lost tribe, we passed dark farmhouses patrolled by snarling dogs. We struggled to find our way to the promised land, Girasol or “Sunflower,” the home of Carol’s hippies. It reminded me of the British tradition of lords fancifully naming their country estates. And indeed, the man of the house was British, a former London street punk named Mick.
Taking one wrong turn after another in the nearly moonless night, I was exhausted after this long day of travel. I suggested that we just find some bushes to sleep in by the side of the road and locate Girasol in the morning. But Carol wouldn’t have it. So I capitulated, and we slogged ahead, the pack on my back growing heavier and heavier. My slumping posture worsened until it seemed I might snap in half. Welcome to Sicily, I thought.
* Carol *
My Sicilian great-granddad, Papa Pete, met a feisty blond Irish-American woman, and he was smitten. Grace must have loved him too, since her father swore that if she married that dirty Sicilian, he would never talk to her again. They did marry, and he never again spoke to my great-grandmom, Grace. The bitter old man didn’t have to suffer the indignity of a Southern Italian son-in-law long, however. He went to his grave shortly after the wedding.
My mother told stories of Papa Pete taking her to Coney Island and spoiling her rotten. She spoke of how tall he was, of his long fingers. Now that I was in Italy, I could see her grandfather in a whole new light, as an amazing, tall Sicilian lover. My mom whispered that Grandma had told her what an entrancing lover Papa Pete had been, right up to the very end. Were all Sicilian men such fantastic lovers? I was curious to find out.
Veronika took a long but artistic drag off her joint, and then passed the home-rolled cigarette around the campfire drum circle. Things seemed so mixed up here in multi-cultural Europe: 1960s hotels sitting astride Neolithic ruins, friendly exchange families displaying books about Mussolini on their shelves, southern-fried American rock pumping from Mediterranean discos. Although it looked weird at first, it was starting to seem natural that people here always blend a little tobacco into their marijuana joints – spinelli.
It was a warm night and the moon shone through gaps in the dark cloud banks above. This was my first big social gathering since arriving in Piazza Armerina. I partook of the communal cigarette and sent it on its way – Tocca ti, your turn. The Lynyrd Skynrd tape had ended, and a drum circle was breaking out. I was inspired to pick up my empty wine glass and tap out a rhythm with a spoon. I looked around for Carol through the light of the moon and campfire. She was always running off somewhere, doing a thousand things at once. Not one to miss out on any of life’s experiences, that lady.
The first days were awkward but exciting. Carol seemed standoffish and prickly about helping me with Italian. She took me to see the weekly outdoor market that happened every Thursday. As we walked through the cobblestoned streets, I noticed that several buildings downtown had concrete barriers in front of them. They were also guarded by suspicious looking soldiers with submachine guns. Carol explained that these were government and courthouse buildings. Several judges had been killed around the island in retaliation for a crackdown on the mafia, and this was an effort to protect those that were left. I walked by quietly and was thankful that nothing exploded.
Reaching the market at Piazza Cascino, I marveled at the blocs of vendors and shoppers. Trucks magically unfolded into rainbows of produce. There were uncountable numbers of hot girls to watch – were the unattractive ones not allowed to leave the house? There were also frumpy old widows in black, tempting smells of cheese, prosciutto, gelato, and roasted nuts, and three-wheeled Ape (“ah-peh”) truck beds with mountains of slithering snails. In the excitement, I made the mistake of asking Carol to remind me how to ask the price of some bananas. She almost took my head off and gave me a lecture on fending for myself. I didn’t soon forget it. I suppose it was good in the long run, as I concentrated on learning to speak better. I didn’t really mind her being bitchy, I just wished she’d sleep with me!
I settled into life at Girasol, Veronika’s house which was the only place in Sicily that would accept us as an unmarried couple in this Catholic headquarters of a country, at least temporarily. I had visited hippie places before, so the outhouse and organic-feed chicken coop weren’t big surprises. I was just awed by the exoticness of the local culture. The bell-clanging chorus of Mario’s cows, as this local shepherd walked his herd up our road and across the gulley. The occasional rider on horseback passing by. This place felt like some kind of time vortex.
This unlikely community of hippies in the heart of Sicily had begun in the late ‘70s when they migrated from all over Europe to squat on abandoned land. They fixed up old stone houses, ate wild vegetables, and tried communal living. As time passed, many caved in to yuppification. They had children, built new homes with electricity, and got washing machines and cars and computers. Luckily for us, many of their original houses were still there, now empty and available for us to use. I was going to have to check into them as possible places to stay this year since Carol had not successfully found lodging for me.
Girasol was one such place, but it was inhabited. In a way, Mick and Veronika were throwbacks, holdouts from an earlier era as their hippie neighbors had upgraded around them. The house was a big one-room affair with a steep wooden ladder up to a loft, from which you could gaze out a skylight to the hilltop across the valley. The valley was known locally as Vallone di Calle, or “Little Valley of Chickens.” The house was surrounded by fruit trees, bushes, and vines, and a feast of figs, pears, apples, blackberries, mulberries, and grapes were already weighing down the branches when we arrived. I soon started learning the Italian names for these delicacies and enjoyed showing off my newly acquired knowledge. Since childhood I’d always been a bit of a show off, teacher’s pet, and know-it-all. Veronika laughed at me and pointed out that I should be careful. The word for fig for example, la fica, was also a slang term for a certain part of the female anatomy. I would come to learn that quite a number of things here had sexual double meanings.
So surrounded by sexy figs, Mick and Veronika had lived at Girasol. They were dreadlocked Welsh/German street performers with two children, Hans and Sabine, ages two and four. Veronika’s fifteen-year-old lived with her father in Germany throughout the school year. They also lived with many miscellaneous visitors, travelers, passers-by, and uncounted cats and kittens. It was quite a houseful. Lots of flies too. It was not exceptionally unclean, but there were no screens on the windows or door. The entrance was framed by flowers planted in combat boots.
Outside this door, under a corrugated plastic roof, was a small courtyard. Bags of chicken feed were propped against a washing machine and a large sink for washing dishes. The chicken coop perched on a hillside near an outhouse and solar shower. I soon learned that the water stayed warm for five minutes, if you were lucky. The shower provided no curtain, for modesty, but the hillside offered plenty of fig leaves.
Inside, the house – built of wood and stone — was rustic and charming. Under a loft, a cozy living room offered a futon, storage chests, and a rustic wooden table. In the next room, the windows above the kitchen sink and stove faced a hillside. People walking down the hill could look right in and see what delicacies you’d be obliged to offer if they stopped in to say caio.
Mick was actually not there at the moment, having run off with a woman named Annabella. So Veronika, tall and Tim Burton-esque with her striped leggings and eyeliner, didn’t mind people stopping by if they would help out with the kids. It was the perfect place to crash for a while as Carol and I hatched our plans for the year.
Carol wanted to see everything of significance in Sicily. I just wanted to see a beach. When I envisioned staying a year on an island in the Mediterranean, I kind of pictured being a beach bum. But Carol’s Lion’s Club exchange program just happened to be headquartered in Enna, the only completely land-locked province of Sicily. At least at certain points on the high mountain roads, we could see the smoking volcanic peak of Mt. Etna, fifty miles away by the shore.
It took about an hour to walk to town. Down the hill, across the stream, then up the eroded clay hillside to the dirt “road” where Mick’s and Veronika’s dead circus van rested. Then up and down the hillside accompanied by the scratching of lizards scurrying into the dry bushes. Back across the stream, up another hill, and around some curves that offered a view of the widening valley ahead. Heading downhill again, we could tell we were finally getting closer to town, because stretches of the road were actually paved with lumpy concrete. We passed an abandoned house, on the left, where a dirt path led into another small valley and to Casa de Oscar, another hippie house that was currently available. Then on the right, perched warily above the road, was Artilio’s.
Artilio was a local legend with a snaggle-toothed jack-o-lantern smile and piercing eyes set deep in his sun-lined face. He rarely took his black beretta hunting cap off and usually had a couple days worth of white stubble. It must have been tough for him to smooth out the wrinkles in his face enough to get a good shave. His wife had died of cancer a few years earlier after he had taken care of her day and night. He was lost when she died, and now he latched on to the local hippies for companionship. He always tried to talk newcomers into living at his place and helping with his chores.
Artilio’s house was spacious and relatively new. People said the government had built it for him as part of his pension for service, and it surprised me that the government had actually kept its promise. Especially after the stories I’d heard of his imprisonment for being a communist partisan in the anarchy after the war.
Walking down the road from Girasol, we often found Artilio emerging from the trees with a basketful of mushrooms, hazelnuts, and whatever else was in season. We never knew when Artilio was watching us, either from his strategically-placed house or through the underbrush. And we risked his wrath if we passed by without stopping to visit. That made it tough to make it to appointments in town on time, but Artilio would often offer to let me ride on the back of his Vespa, holding onto him for dear life.
I was fascinated by his life, but I never felt comfortable asking him much about it and, at first, my Italian wasn’t up to it. I was happy if I could get out a comprehensible sentence about his cat. As demanding as he could be, Artilio was also generous. He always offered food and drink. He made two types of pasta, one for summer and one for winter. He usually fed us the same meal when we stopped by, and it was always delicious.
After we had eaten, socialized, and played the obligatory card game, we’d continue walking to town. Down his steep driveway and back up the hill past a series of large country houses with jagged broken bottles cemented to the tops of their walls for security. As an additional line of defense, snarling dogs hurled themselves at the gates as we passed by. We stepped back, avoiding the foam flying from their snapping mouths, hoping the gates held. At the top of the road, this gauntlet of houses petered out, replaced by a plateau of vineyards. Past this dusty stretch the road dipped steeply, taking several switchbacks past more homes defended by broken glass and a large dump. I enjoyed rummaging through it to find interesting Italian pop art materials. That was always a nice payoff for making it that far. When we reached the abandoned Catholic nunnery at the bottom of the hill, we knew we were almost to town. Well, maybe just another twenty minutes.
My family had to have been Catholic. Everyone in Sicily had been, and most of them still were, at least in name. The only other religions were apathy and rebellion against the hypocrisy of the Vatican, which was so close to home. By the time I was born, none of our Catholic heritage was evident in my family. Grandma Grace, or “Catarina,” had a bad experience with a priest, and from then on my family rejected Catholicism. Supposedly the priest made a pass at one of my great-grandmothers. If he was an Italian priest, I could believe it. So all the religion my mother and aunt received was Sunday school at a Methodist church. It later dawned on them that the only reason they were sent was so my grandparents could rush home to be alone with their conjugal duties.
On Rob’s first morning in Sicily, we woke up late. There was no real reason to rush and get up for anything in Sicily, unless we were traveling. Veronika came back from another brief vacation, and we caught a ride with her to town.
Rob and I walked around looking for the Virgin Maria procession. I was disappointed to find the procession was really boring. The flowers and the Virgin platform were pretty enough, but it wasn’t big and gaudy like the processions I had seen in Spain. We listened to the bishop and mayor pray for the Virgin to watch over Piazza Armerina.
Fresh toasted almonds and peanuts from the vendors helped enliven us as we walked to Giovanni’s. My two men would meet.
I watched Giovanni’s eyes as he shook hands with Rob. I told Giovanni not to speak too much English so that Rob would pick up Italian. I was adamant about Rob learning on his own. I’d once spent a month with a woman, in the midst of a midlife crisis, in the middle of the Mexican Sierra. She’d relied on her high school Spanish – and me – to get by. Since then I’d had a pet peeve about people using me as a translator. The only way to really learn a language was to sink or swim.
Giovanni was impressed that Rob already knew a little Italian but laughed when Rob asked for “achua” instead of “aqua,” the Italian word for water. Apparently Rob was trying to sort out all the new sounds in Italian, the “ch” being a “k” and “c” being a “ch.”
When Rob went to the bathroom, as I’d hoped he would, I finally got to talk to Giovanni.
“Do you miss me?” I asked.
“In the morning when I wake up there is this odd echo whenever I say, ‘Is anyone there?’”
I laughed and said I missed him.
“I don’t feel anything for Rob.”
“I feel responsible.”
“No, it’s not your fault. If I were strong, nothing would have happened in the first place.”
Rob came out of the bathroom with an unknowing, innocent smile. How sneaky I felt.
As we left his house, Giovanni touched my back and I wanted to kiss him. Earlier I’d almost grabbed his hand, out of habit, but managed to restrain myself.
We still wanted to hang out together, so we all met up at Artilio’s house in the countryside. We sat in the sun, and Veronika passed around a joint. It was pleasant being lost in the Sicilian landscape, stoned with my friends. I didn’t usually smoke pot, having given it up after a disastrous period of being a “bad girl” in high school. But this was Sicily – hedonist Greek history, hippies, motorcycles, and infidelity – I had long stopped being the puritan American girl I once was.
Veronika drove home, around three, with Rob and me. We were her new housemates, at least until we all decided what we wanted to do during the next few months. Later, in bed, Rob and I kissed a bit, but I was tired and didn’t want to do anything with him. I dreamt I was holding a blond version of Giovanni and woke up disappointed to find out it was just Rob.
Spending the next few days hanging out at Veronika’s didn’t help. My feelings about the situation were not getting any easier. I started distancing myself from Rob and wanting Giovanni more.
Giovanni came over for dinner, with some other hippies, the next night. Rob fell asleep, and Giovanni started drawing on my arm. Then Veronika and her daughter joined him in making fake tattoos on me. It was part fun and part practice. Veronika wanted to get into the tattoo business. She used a pen to draw fake tattoos on everyone, and she and Giovanni got into a philosophical discussion that literally put me to sleep. Apparently Giovanni took in all of Burlosconi’s bikini wearing juggle TV and listened to the Fox News propaganda and had a conservative side. Veronika didn’t own a TV and stood up for her own liberal beliefs. They swam in Italian politics which I would never understand if I wrote a PhD so I was out, like a light.
I woke up to pee just in time to see Giovanni’s headlights pulling out of the driveway as he headed down the dirt road. It made me pine for him more and made the valley between Girasol and his apartment seem more like an unbridgeable gulf. I felt left behind with my “boyfriend.”
The next day, at the market, Rob stormed off without buying bananas because I wouldn’t help him translate, and I felt that he was not the ideal boyfriend I had imagined when I’d met him at 18. I imagined him as an adventurous hippy as myself. Depression had never touched my families’ life or myself. My mother was pure optimist and had traveled to all seven continents. Rob’s slothlike movement and anxiety were not in the vision of when I met him under the fireworks of Washington’s capital, in the imprimt he had made on me as I left high school and started new into college that summer. He always seemed to give up so easily. I felt guilty for being mean, so I helped him find guitar strings at a music shop. I sat in Bar Charlotte, the favorite of our hippie crowd, and hoped Giovanni would pass by. I even asked if he had been there. I was frustrated to learn that I had just missed him, which seemed to be happening a lot. Was he already just a ghost of my past?
We got back to Girasolin time to change clothes and walk up the hillside obstacle course to visit Marlies and Felippe, who had hosted Veronika’s “going away” party. They were a sweet hippie couple who had been part of the now defunct commune. Marlies was a brunette from Germany with one son by another man and another son with Felippe, who was from Rome. Vironika and her kids came for dinner too, along with some Germans from Valle Perfetta. Rob started to catch on that life in Sicily was only running errands, eating dinner, and hanging out with friends. He hadn’t gotten to try the sex part yet.
Felippe made me feel comfortable and cracked me up. I’d never really talked with any of the Germans except Veronika and Marlies, who was exceptionally friendly — maybe she got that from her Polish father.
Marlies asked me about our experience on the Native American reservation. I told her how I worked with the non-profit for almost a year when I asked if they needed a biology major. The man in charge of the outside projects turned his swivel chair around and jumped saying, “Yes”. That’s how I got Rob to join me, he was a science major but since graduating a few years since he was just sitting around his mom and dad’s house. I assumed he’d want to continue where we left off the summer before I went away. That’s when I finally did it – I seduced Rob with my Mexican beans.
I had just spent a year flirting with cowboys but refusing their marriage proposals in the Sierra of Mexico. I came back with one focus – I was going to get Rob. We had been friends since that Washington summer and nothing. Now was the time. After years of chatting all night when I came in from college, I wasn’t going to let him go.
I invited him to learn how to make the beans he enjoyed when I made a feast over Christmas when I flew in on a week’s break from a land of no electricity or running water. Making those beans were a long process and I started it at seven at night – sifting through the beans for dust and rocks, then cooking them for four hours. I even dressed like a Mexican woman waiting to meet her mate at a wedding dance – in a mini skirt, poofed up hair, and smooth nylons. We talked as the beans boiled and I sat close to him. He liked the feel of the nylons and I let him touch galore. I was also a bit touch derived since men and women couldn’t touch in Mexico, only dance.
By the time the beans were cooked and I moved them to a hot pan with melted lard and mooshed them together, we were way on our way to making out. After the dinner which was way too late for him to drive home, I invited him to sleep over and conveniently my mom was out of town, in Russia I think. So we finally kissed. We were finally a couple, I thought.
We spent a few days at his grandmother’s beach house in Prince Frederick on the Chesapeake Bay. I thought we’d go all the way and for the first time in my life I asked the guy. He said no. Wow, I had even embarrassed myself buying the condoms at the small gas station. After that, we only had a day until I was going away on a train trip across the country with my best friend, Ami. He said no. Maybe another time. Or maybe never.
So, when he got to Minnesota I thought it’d be yes. Again, even before he arrived he made it clear that was not going to be part of his internship. I dealt with the blow fine, keeping it professional – just seeing him at the office and staying at my rented apartment. He stayed with our boss at her lake cabin. I worked the weekends at the casino, waitressing and saving money for Italy.
Then, it happened. Winter melted and the maple trees had cold enough nights and warm enough days to run their sweetness. The non-profit needed help with their syrup making industry and wanted me to photograph the project. Rob and I arrived ready to work but I found a surprise. For the first time since I arrived, there were young people. Everyone at the non-profit were over 30, now they had young, and may I add, handsome, young 20 year olds. I flirted unabashedly. It must have been so obvious because the boss said it looked like the spring rut, and not talking about the deer.
I was on a high driving Rob back to the lake cabin. I had a car whereas he usually caught rides. I didn’t understand why he felt so down. He had been accepted in. His blond hair didn’t repel him even when some people thought it suspicious to have new white people running around the rez.
He took in a deep breath and admitted his feelings, “I’m jealous.”
“You talking with all those guys.”
“Why do you care? You made it clear, we are just friends” I may have snuck a little smile. Would my patience be rewarded?
“I know but when I think of you being one of those guys old lady I get angry.” On the rez, the romantic term for your spouse was “Old man” or “old lady”.
“So, what are you saying, exactly?”
“I want you to be my old lady”
“Okay” And with that it was done. We left the friend label. We did sleep together and used those condoms I bought, ,still in my purse. The boss was even happy saying now we could share one room and open up rooms for the other interns arriving for the summer. My lease had ended so we got a love nest in the farm the nonprofit just purchased. The only problem was that I planned to go to Italy for one year. Luckily, Rob agreed to tag along to that new place too. And now, I was leaving him in my dust tracks. So When I told Marlies about our experience and how Rob was called General Custer due to his blond hair, it reminded me that once we finally got together I was christened “Custer’s wife.” It pained me to remember how blissful my life with Rob had once seemed. I wondered if I should just jump into his arms and stay there.
The mysterious Annabella was also at the party. Far from being the evil strumpet who stole Mick from his family, she was a sweet, funny, strong woman who easily won me over. And not just me – even Veronika forgave her, going as far as to let Annabella come back and stay with us at Girasol, since her tryst with Mick hadn’t worked out. I think they bonded over complaining about Mick and his many flaws. They also looked similar – Annabella had dreadlocks too, but since she was Italian, they were brunette. Her body was stockier, but she looked cute in a mini skirt. I figured Northern Italy must have a better educational system since, while Sicilians didn’t seem to know any English, hers was flawless.
It was yet more evidence that this land had none of the puritan values of the good old USA. In America people don’t generally forgive and befriend people who steal their partners. They go on shows like Dr. Phil and rip their faces off. Cheating, to me, had been a deadly serious infraction, but here people were taking it so lightly. I mean, a whole music industry had grown up, through the rural jukeboxes of America, based on the woes of cheating. No wonder country music had never caught on in Europe.
Annabella agreed with Giovanni that “Sicilia e magica.” She loved the island and felt the power and pull of its active volcanoes. Etna’s constant puffs of steam got to her. She felt connected to this land, even though she was from Trieste. It seemed to represent the pure, ancestral essence of Italy, missing in the modernized North. Annabella theorized that the volcanoes in Trapani and Napoli formed a powerful triangle with Etna. I was afraid of this magic. These volcanic fires were ruining my life, or at least burning to ashes all the ideas I’d had when I’d arrived on the island.
Veronika and her kids led us on the hike back to the house under the rabbit-filled moon. Italians see the profile of a hare, instead of a man, in the moon. Rob and I lagged behind. We stopped to look over a hillside; the trees were silhouetted in silver light. Rob gently touched my arm and said, “Have you ever made love outside by the full moon?”
I was surprised. He had never been spontaneous like that. But I didn’t feel anything. Nothing like I felt when Giovanni simply said, “Facciamo il amore?”(Let’s make love?)
I laughed, and I guess Rob figured I wanted to walk home before we lost sight of Veronika. I didn’t know if he noticed I was avoiding sex. Or that I didn’t find his jokes as funny as I used to. A few days earlier, after his outdoor shower at Girasol, he’d covered himself with a fig leaf and said he was Adam and I must be Eve. I just thought he was a dork. A month earlier I would have thought the joke was the cleverest and jumped into his arms to play the part of his God-given mate.
I worried about the next two weeks. Veronika and Annabella were going to the beach for another mini-vacation — it’s not like they had day jobs — to figure out their lives after Mick. What was it going to be like alone in the house with Rob for two weeks? Before I would have thought of it as a honeymoon, but now I didn’t know how I could avoid him that long. I didn’t want to be there with him. I actually preferred to be alone and in danger of being raped and murdered by the lurking shepherds of the valley. All I could see now, when I looked into his blue-green eyes, were his flaws. All my old resentments for things he had done in the past had come back. I ruminated on all the false starts and roadblocks in our relationship before he finally asked me to be his “old lady” on the reservation. And then it was only because he got jealous of all the cute boys in the bush. Everything was pouring out. I had been afraid I wouldn’t have any feelings for Rob, but I did have one: anger.
I was mad at him for always sitting around or sleeping and never offering to help me, or anyone else, with chores. Would this always bother me? Were these feelings a sign that I didn’t really like Rob? Or was I just scared of a long-term relationship? Maybe I wanted the unattainable perfect man. I knew he didn’t exist, and the closest prospect was a Lupo Solitario, a self-proclaimed lone wolf, probably fucking other women at this very moment. After I left at the end of the year, I would probably never even hear from Giovanni again. I just couldn’t decide what I was supposed to do.
Rob painted the duomo of Piazza Armerina. I love this painting but in my move to cohousing it got a little puncture. A bad sign?
Chapter 2 – Not the Trip I Paid For
In my family you don’t mess with the other woman. Papa Nick and Catarina got married and had three daughters. Four actually, but the second daughter died before living a year. Her name was Josephina and when she died, they passed her name on to my Aunt Jo. That had always seemed creepy to me, but it must have made sense to turn-of-the century Catholic Sicilians. Aunt Rosalie was the first born and Grandma Nettie was the youngest.
Great Aunt Rosalie fell in love with a man who moved to Washington, D.C. to study law. Apparently, he had another woman or fell in love with someone there, and he chose to marry her instead. Aunt Rosalie didn’t show her hurt, but she showed up at his wedding. She sat right in the front row. When he came out to see his future wife, he saw Rosalie, and his face went completely white. At least he and his bride were wearing matching colors at that moment. I wonder how that marriage turned out. Maybe Aunt Rosalie’s evil eye cast a curse on the marriage and, in twenty or thirty years, when divorce became acceptable, they succumbed to that trend.
I’m not good at keeping secrets. I can keep others’ secrets pretty well, but not my own. I have to spill it. I need to roll around the options and discuss things. It was killing me keeping a secret from Rob. One day, we were in town running errands and ended up having to stay through the dreaded two-hour lunch break. No one ever invited us over to lunch. They would just bid us a “buon pranzo” and go eat their pranzos and leave us to the snacks at the bar or dying of boredom in a park. We sat on a bench and waited for the stores to open again.
We started talking about kids and our futures, and I just blurted out, “What would you do if I was pregnant?”
Rob replied without skipping a beat, “I’d congratulate you on fulfilling your dream.”
It took him a moment to realize that he always uses the best precautions and that we hadn’t been together for almost two months.
He carefully asked, “By another man?” and then paused to think. “I know you wouldn’t do that. You’re not the cheating kind.”
“How do you know?”
“You told me yourself that you never cheat.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe some things change in Sicily.”
“Yes,” I admitted both sheepishly and proudly.
“Have I met him?”
“No.” I lied. I could only bear to drop one bombshell at a time.
“Who was it?”
“Just a guy.”
“Is it still going on?”
“What’s his name?”
“I can’t tell you. Let’s just call him … um … Bruno.”
I didn’t know anyone by that name, so it seemed a wise choice. It even sounded Italian.
“Do you need to take another AIDS test?”
“Oh, Rob, don’t ask these questions. I’ve already said too much.”
To my surprise he wasn’t upset. He didn’t yell at me or desert me in the lonely park.
We had a long talk. It wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be. I was honest, and we even laughed. It was an important conversation; I told him how I’d changed and revealed all my doubts and worries about being in a long-term relationship with him, in Sicily, with his dependence on others and history of depression. I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted and I would need time.
We actually left the park feeling pretty good. We even held hands as we walked to Giovanni’s. We made small talk in the wolf’s kitchen, and then Rob fell asleep on the couch. I wrote on a piece of paper and slid it across the table to Giovanni. It said, ”Lui sa.” (He knows.)
Giovanni’s eyes grew big. I wondered what he thought of us weird Americans who obsess over cheating and even tell each other when we stray, unlike the Italians, who cheat incessantly but remain secretive and two-faced about it. Someone later told me it was an Italian Catholic thing, to stay married no matter what. Family was so important that, even if a spouse was cheating, you had to keep up appearances.
I grabbed the paper back and wrote “ma non chi” (But he doesn’t know who.)
I whispered to Giovanni that it was no big deal and that I told Rob I just wanted to be friends. Just then Rob stirred. We selected a movie from Giovanni’s broad selection of American videos. It was JesusChrist Superstar, and I wondered if that was yet another message from above. After all, being a skinny long-haired Mediterranean, Giovanni did resemble Jesus. We headed out the door afterwards, and when Rob wasn’t looking, I blew a kiss to Giovanni.
As we walked out of the building, Rob looked sad.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I was just thinking that if Carol, who has liked me for six years, doesn’t want me anymore, who ever will?”
Guilt rose into my throat.
We were walking home when a guy in one of the three-wheeled ape trucks offered us a ride up the long steep hill. Rob and I laughed as the tiny vehicle struggled under our body weight. Maybe three wheels just weren’t a good idea, like third wheels in a relationship. Now we were three, and it would be an uphill battle. At least that’s what I thought.
Zeus was in a fight with a giant some say was Enkelados, others say it was Typhoeus. Zeus valiantly threw a big rock at his foe. The huge boulder pegged the creature, and he’s still stuck under it. But when the monster gets restless, he makes that rock — called Sicily – shake. That was the Greeks’ way of explaining the island’s many earthquakes. The conquered beast is still struggling to escape.
The next day I escaped and went to town alone. I needed to be free from Rob’s depression and my desperate attempts to find reasons to hate him. If I could hate him, it would assuage the horrible guilt consuming every part of my body. I made the obligatory stop at Artilios’s. The old man had suffered much but never lost his feisty spirit. Maybe I could find some guidance from him.
I said hello and all the niceties. He told me he was heading to town and offered me a ride on his Vespa. Artilio always made offers you couldn’t refuse. Not by putting severed animal heads in your bed, but by yelling, pouting, cursing, and the dreaded cold shoulder.
I thought we’d die just riding down his paved driveway. It would be certain death going up the gravel road. Somehow I lived to write this, and we reached the asphalt and whisked downhill to town.
I thanked Artilio, and we went our separate ways to do our duties in town. Mine included a little shopping, sitting and eating a peach in a piazza, and talking with a Lion I saw. Then, since I was finally alone, I headed towards Piazza Mariscaldi, letting Giovanni sleep until eleven in the morning. I rang up to him. He sounded tired when he answered but said, “Oh, Carol!” with what sounded like surprise. I came up to find him in bed in his underwear, a very risky situation which we took advantage of. Three times
As I’ve said, the Sicilians told me that there are only three things to do on their island, sleep, eat, and have sex. So to keep things safe, you do one instead of the other. I got my fill of sex, so the next day, with Rob, I tried to cook a proper Sicilian meal which the mother of one of the Lions had taught me. She’d showed me how to make pasta from scratch and roll it into little noodles to dry. She’d also taught me how to stew and strain the tomatoes into a fabulous sauce.
It was doomed from the start. Italy doesn’t just sell flour – it sells ten kinds of flour, which I had been horrified to discover, earlier in the summer, when I tried to make Mexican tortillas. There is flour for pasta, flour for bread, and flour for sweets. I bought and used the wrong one. The noodles looked like dead worms floating in a sea of red, but at least the sauce tasted good. We fished out the worms and gave them to the cats, who loved them. I cooked some store-bought pasta. My long day of cooking didn’t end too badly.
I don’t know if it was the pasta worms, but for the next few days I was sick. It started with an achy feeling in my arm and back, like a flu. Then came the runs which I could directly blame on my Frankenstein pasta mush worms. It also felt like PMS, and luckily morning sickness quickly got ruled out.
I spent most of my time in bed with occasional visits from Artilio. His visits weren’t too merciful, as he seemed intent on lecturing me on my behavior. Maybe he thought I was sick because the Universe was punishing me. He asserted that women should not run from one man to another as if it were a sport. What rumors had the old man heard? Was this just coincidental advice? I shrugged it off – he was from a different generation. Either way it didn’t make me feel better.
I also tried talking to Enzo, a neighbor, who seemed nice enough for a shepherd. His shirt was dirty and his belly stretched it out. He was in his young thirties and his hair needed a trim but held tight to some sticks, maybe from chasing sheep in the orchards. I liked getting to know a “scary” shepard, but I felt weak and had to excuse myself to go back upstairs to sleep. Rob walked into town one night and came home earlier than I’d expected. Apparently he’d caught a ride home after becoming a town celebrity. I was glad he was finally enjoying himself in Sicily, ironically, without me around.
During the Normandy festival, there was a karaoke contest. Carol said she wasn’t feeling well, so I trudged into town by myself. Always a wannabe rock star, I couldn’t pass the opportunity up, but I panicked and almost backed out a couple of times.
I found my way to the Piazza Crocifisso and figured out how to sign up and sing. They only had a few English selections, so I chose John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I had only sung karaoke once before, at a country dive in Minnesota where I puzzled everyone with “Mack the Knife.” This was a much bigger event, putting me on a giant stage in front of a crowd of hundreds. I didn’t have any booze or weed to relax with, but somehow I felt confident, in my element. The MC introduced me and handed me the mic, and I quickly figured out how to use it. I was loving this. I must have looked like a real American grunge rocker up there, in my dusty boots, denim, and long curly hair. I watched beautiful girls in the audience smile to one another and point at me, and I even got them waving their arms in the air in time with the music! This was fantastic. This was how I wanted to live life.
After my moment in the spotlight, I bowed, told the audience grazie, and climbed back offstage. The last contestant was a local, he sang some patriotic song that got the crowd singing. Italians sure are an enthusiastic bunch. Voting came next, and to my chagrin, the emcee crowned the local guy with first place. I was sure the crowd had cheered more for me, but I guess they couldn’t let some foreigner strut in and take first place in their patriotic festival. My second-place prize was a bit underwhelming. I had come all the way to Italy for an NBA Basketball t-shirt. At least I got a kiss on both cheeks from the mayor. The chance to be on stage had been the real prize anyway.
The contest over, the crowd started to disperse. It was late and dark, how the hell was I supposed to get back to Girasol now? Bar Charlotte, where I might have a chance of meeting someone from the hippie crowd, would be closed. I didn’t know Giovanni well enough to ask him for a ride. I looked around at the audience, my former fans, but no one seemed interested in talking to me. What had happened to all the hot adoring girls? I was crestfallen. What was it worth to be a good singer when you didn’t have money and limousines afterward? I shrugged and headed out of town on foot. Fortunately, a guy who I had talked to passed me on the road. He stopped and asked if I needed a lift, and I thanked him profusely. He was a bit chagrined when I led him on the winding potholed dirt roads toward Girasol. He should have realized how we hippies lived. I thanked him, he praised my performance again, and I stumbled the rest of the way home, through the moonlit night, to a sleeping Carol. In the morning I would share with her the tale of my karaoke triumph and how I was starting to like this place.
I was still feeling crappy several days later, but I had to go to town to buy gruska for Veronika’s chickens. It was some combination of flour, wheat and bread. I guess this was another brand of Italian flour just for chickens.
I had gotten a ride in with Marlies and Felipe after they had invited us to lunch. I could get up and walk sometimes, but at other times I felt totally sick and could barely move.
I really liked talking with Marlies. She understood why I had broken up with Rob. When she’d come to Sicily twenty years earlier, she hadn’t known a word of Italian but she’d felt the magic of the island. How come everyone embraced this magic but me?
After I hunted down the gruska for the chickens, I tried to hunt down a ride home to Girasol. I was feeling sick again, and I was in no mood to haul this huge bag of chicken feed uphill for seven kilometers. Giovanni wasn’t home. Marlies and Felipe were nowhere to be seen, but I did find Enzo. He still seemed harmless enough.
I should have heeded the warnings. As we drove up the hill, he kept commenting how “bella”(beautiful) I was. That’s never a good sign. I tried to steer the conversation in another direction.
“So, how are the sheep?”
“You are a bella regaza.”
“Burn any leaves lately?
“Such a beautiful girl.”
My strategy wasn’t working. Maybe I should have asked if he ever got syphilis from one of his flock.
Oh, he likes me. Not the sheep. Well at least he’s not into bestiality. Will I ever make it home?
We got up the hill, and he embellished his one track conversation. “We are friends. We should have fun.”
Buddy, you are older, bigger and dirtier than me. I don’t see any fun in that.
I just wanted a ride home, but he wanted to take me for a different type of ride. He made that clear when he didn’t take the turn to Girasoland went down another dirt road which I had never seen. We were stopped by a gate. He said, “I don’t have a key so we can make love in the car or you can walk home.
I couldn’t believe it. He even put his hand on my shoulder. I jumped out, shut the door, and took the walking option. I squeezed through the gate which, fortunately, had a big enough gap for a person but not a vehicle. I fumed the whole way back to Girasol. How could he? I was sick. That’s why I needed a ride. And I was getting sick of all these horny Sicilian guys. Giovanni was acting like I was just one of his kitchen sluts — that’s where most of the action happened at his house since his army cot bed was so uninviting. I wasn’t feeling loved or cared about. Just fucked. Here I had been saying “vete a fungulo” to the world, and I was the one being fucked.
My anger changed to fear. The path grew longer and the sky darker. Enzo had left me in the middle of nowhere. Maybe he would come back to rape me, like he probably did to his sheep.
Relief swept over me when I finally spotted a familiar light. I yelled out “Rob!” and got no answer. I could tell I had found Girasol when I walked past the run-down circus van.
I had made it back. I was safe. The path, luckily, did lead back to where I needed to go. Unfortunately, Rob wasn’t there, but he’d left a note saying Artilio had invited him over for dinner. I missed him. Or at least I felt so sick and used and disgusted by Sicilian men that it felt like I missed him.
Why did I let a sweet American man go? A man who really understands me, and doesn’t just want to screw me because it’s convenient and possible?
When Rob came home, I greeted him with passion. He didn’t hold back either, and we made out until we fell asleep. We still had not consummated our relationship on the island, but it was looking like we might. The next morning he greeted me by saying, “Good morning my lovely unfaithful.”
He was definitely taking the situation in stride. But I was the one in for the biggest surprise. He told me he actually liked the idea of our threesome. He enjoyed the competition. He said, “I think I can do better than he can,” not even knowing who the other guy was. That felt like permission to me. My guilt ended. Boys, let the games begin.
Later that day we went to town and ended up at Giovanni’s house. He invited us to a party. We drove around with him in the countryside but, again, could not find the place. What was up with these isolated country parties which not even local Sicilians could find? Was it the hilly landscape, poor urban planning and signage, bad direction giving, crazy Italian drivers, or all of the above?
That’s how the whole thing started with Giovanni – us getting lost. He was Veronika’s only ride before she went through the Sicilian month of bureaucratic torture to buy a used car. I met her at Bar Charlotte (bars were also snack establishments and family places during the day in Sicily) so she could see if the Canadian traveler who vouched for me had chosen a winner or a home wrecker(worse than her husband, that is). I had told everyone with an ear, or two, that I wanted to stay all year after the Lion’s Exchange Program ended. I got plenty of offers until I mentioned my boyfriend and the reply was “oh”. Then, one day I met a Canadian who mentioned a bunch of hippies from Germany living in the hills. Next thing I knew I was meeting Veronika who wanted a house sitter.
And she was a package deal with Giovanni. I didn’t notice him at first but after dropping off Veronika and I checked out Girasol he invited me over to lunch. Lunch was always boring so I said sure. We had a nice innocent lunch. Only once did I think, “This old man is kinda handsome.” Passing thought. 38 is way too old for a 24 year old, and I was doing all this house hunting for Rob. My beloved Rob.
However, we met up again at a hippy party where everyone spoke German and didn’t bother to use their English, or Italian for that matter, with me. So, he said there was another party and I jumped in his car again. True to Sicily, we couldn’t find the party. One flirtation led to another. He talked days about the magic of Sicily, the importance of love, etc. etc. and my house sitting at Girasol became a job for two and I leaped into his arms and a territory of cheating I had never known before. Of course, only after we had crossed into full blown cheating did he mention that he has a few lovers. That would have been useful information before I digressed on the one I thought was the one.
We got back to Giovanni’s house late, and I asked if I could come up to watch a few minutes of the midnight broadcast of CNN. It was in English, and I hadn’t had much news from home in a while. Rob chose to sleep in the car. The minute we walked in, I had one eye on the TV and the other on Giovanni, who’d started touching me all over.
“Can we stay over? That’ll be easier.”
”I’d feel uncomfortable with Rob in the other room.”
“He won’t mind. He said he likes the competition of another man.” ”Really?” ”Yes.” ”Hmm, I don’t know what to think about that.” Rob had thrown Giovanni an American curveball.
Was I becoming the victim of some male ego game? What was going on with these guys? And with me? I didn’t quite like the idea that they both thought this was okay since, at heart, I still felt like I was a one-man–at-a-time type of gal. What would I do with two? The next morning, we begged another ride to town. I found a public phone to call the American naval base at Segonella, just outside Catania. I figured I had to see a doctor for my ongoing illness. The pain was not going away. I didn’t want to miscommunicate about medical conditions, so I wanted an American doctor.
It was such a treat to hear English on the phone – thoughts of home flooded back. The staff was super nice even while explaining that, as a civilian, I could not go onto the base unless it was an emergency. They gave me the name of an Italian doctor who worked at their hospital and knew perfect English. They suggested I might need some gallbladder tests, which weren’t a big deal. What a relief.
We walked over to Giovanni’s so I could tell him the doctor would be calling his place to schedule an appointment. He wasn’t home, but his brother let me into the building and I wrote a note to leave in his mailbox. When I met Rob back outside, I got a horrible surprise. Giovanni pulled up in his green Volvo station wagon, and he wasn’t alone. He saw me and quickly parked around the corner. He said something to the passenger and got out of the car to talk to me and his brother. His clueless brother, not noticing my heart shattering all over the sidewalk, said, “Look, Giovanni’s here.”
Oh yippee, with another woman. What a nightmare! I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t with Fabio there. Giovanni came up casually and said “ciao.” I told him about the doctor and was about to run away when his other brother showed up. It was the first time I had been around all three, so I snapped a photo. Seeing it today reminds me how I felt – I can still see that other woman, his other lover, skinnier and younger and prettier, parked around the corner. She is not actually in the photo, but I will never forget her.
I tried not to think about Giovanni being with her as Rob and I got a ride to Marlies and Felipe’s for dinner. Throughout the meal all I could think was, “He’s fucking. He’s fucking her. What the fuck am I doing with this guy? What am I doing, or not doing with Rob? Giovanni’s fucking her. I actually saw her. How many others are there? How many people are playing this twisted game?”
When Rob and I were finally alone, I had to spill. I had to process this new development. I tried to talk about Giovanni, under the pseudonym of “Bruno,” again, but that didn’t do the trick. I had to explain more, how I felt awful even needing Giovanni’s phone and home as a place of refuge. I felt like I had invaded his lupo solatario life, and now I’d gotten burned, getting a glimpse of one of the other sheep he was devouring.
I blurted out, “Rob, are you ready to find out who Bruno is?”
”I guess so.”
We both laughed nervously.
“Did I see Bruno with this other woman too?” He guessed.
“Yes. It’s Giovanni.”
“But you said I hadn’t met him.”
He thought a minute. “I wondered if Giovanni liked you.”That was it. He wasn’t angry. I almost wished he would get angry or jealous, leave me, or at least make me choose. That would have made the whole affair clearer, at least for me.
This show is a hit. It has such comedy star power – Steve Martin, Martin Short, Nathan Lane and introduces my generation to Selena Gomez. I knew I would want to see it from an intentional community perspective. They all live in a coop in New York City, and true to New York style, they don’t know their neighbors until a crisis. An alarm and evacuation take them out of the building and the three main characters (Played by Martin, Short, and Gomez) all discover they love the same true crime podcast. Then, there is a real crime in their building – a murder of course. They start their own podcast and try to find out who did it. It’s hilarious because even big pop star musicians are suspects.
Of course, in the meantime, they meet many neighbors and become a trio of besties. In one scene, Steve Martin’s character says they have become a community as he sits there with his podcast pals, their fans, and their new romantic partners. It is a cute story of how just doing something nice like bringing a morning turkey to a neighbor can make your building something more than just a residence.
It is fiction and the building is huge so it would be hard to know all your neighbors. Community or not, it is a fun show.
I do see a trend on TV – there are always best friends and a warm community. TV sells fantasy and they do a good job at it. I was always jealous of the four women in Sex in the City always having time for each other to brunch. In reality, Kim Cattrail said in a recent Variety interview, they were just professional coworkers. So, if you move into an intentional community, just remember, it’s not like it’s portrayed on TV.
Flower asked me why I moved into cohousing in the first place. I looked at my first posts and realized I never did write that. So, I looked at my notes and found this draft. I will post it now:
It’s all happening so fast but it did start out slow. I heard about co-housing 8 or 9 years ago. I wanted to sign up right there and then. I went to some of the potlucks but they were so far off I thought I’d be the co-housing type that joins in when it’s almost move in time. One reason is because buildings, and interior design and stuff like that don’t concern me. My yearbook quote in college was “wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home” by Marvin Gaye. So just tell me where to put my couch. The other reason was money. I don’t have any.
Years later that group bought land. I’m ready to move in. But they just optioned the land, need more people to buy in, have to remove a million rocks (maybe), build the common house and all the houses. No place to put my couch yet. Plus I love my town but I know most people are like me – believe in community and peace and justice but work as teachers, social workers, college professors. In other words, they don’t have the money to build a common house and a house from scratch.
Then I found out there is another cohousing forming. And they’ve already broken ground. Plus, they already have a common house – the farmhouse that came with the property. I also found out I could get a home loan since it is being built by a developer so it’s easier to get a home loan than a construction loan.
I thought I’d have a few months but it looks like they are going to build my unit sooner than expected. I hadn’t quite made myself loan ready since I just met with the community at their potluck two months ago. It went from an idea to a reality too quickly for my credit score. So I’m a bit panicked on the money side. However I want to live in cohousing no matter what. Even if I have to squat.
Since learning about co-housing I’ve noticed what I lack. Yes, I had community through homeschooling co-ops and meeting parents. I’ve had community through religious organizations. And at the gym. But it’s not a deep sense. I’ve switched religious houses. One barely even congratulated me on having a baby whereas the next one brought meals for two weeks. The sense of community can vary from one congregation to the next.
And it’s nice to go to the gym and meet people in clases but people come and go and I like to swim and it’s hard to hold a conversation under water.
This year has been tough. I’ll get upset over something in politics and have no one to commiserate about it. Sure there’s social media but I find that more isolating than socializing.
Now I’m about to start living my dream. I do have some worries. Will it be like the small town in Minnesota where everyone knows everything about you? I don’t mind. I’m not super private but do I have to divulge everything? I know we’ll have fences but do I have to tell my whole life story?
I also worry since the reality is I’m not the best neighbor. I’m sure my neighbor across the street hate me. They have a perfect yard and mine is cluttered with toys and weeds. I am so overwhelmed just trying to keep the inside of the house decent (some dishes put away, hallways you can walk through, not what most would call “clean”) that I never get to the outside. And to make matters worse I have a carport which means they can see everything I put in there. A garage door can cover your mess but mine is out there for the neighbors to see. Anyways, will the new neighbors be mad at my slowness at keeping everything tip top?
I guess I’ll find out.
A few months later I wrote:
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Today as I try to clean the house – it’s Sunday, I’m also trying to downsize. My dream is to only bring stuff and not furniture. To buy new furniture because we need it. My bed’s mattress is sinking in so I’d love to try a casper. My 13 year olds bunk bed probably won’t make the move and the dog ate half of the bottom’s mattress. Our couch is a college dorm 1980’s block which was bought second hand to resist three young boys but now only one is young – 8 years old, and a lot gentler on furniture. So, why get a moving truck?
That brings me to my next fear – does co-housing lead to out of control keeping up with the Joneses? With I feel inferior to the stuff that the others have? Will they not like me since it will take awhile, years even, to fill up the house with furniture since all my money is going to the mortgage since I’m still poor? Or will everyone admire the uniqueness in each other’s houses and “share” other stuff. I won’t know. I do know I can’t change my financial situation and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to waste money on a material possession arms race.
April 2018 I had heard of groupthink apparently, but was encouraged it could be a good thing and wrote:
PERFECTION? GROUP THINK
We had a crucial meeting. We came to a consensus about the pet policy. Apparently that’s one of the most contentious policies to come up with. We all agreed that it is more perspective at this moment since people like me feared the Cujos. I shared my real experience – I’ve only been bit by “nice” dogs. One had the chance to be “mean” since it was in a pack and seized its chance. The other was when I was a child and my friend pulled the leash of her schnauzer right as my hand was near its head. I”m glad we decided to keep them leashed and then ask if we can unleash the hound to those around, and leash them if someone steps out and then ask again. Great idea. Too bad I never brought up geese. They are the most aggressive, crazy animals!
My anxiety came to the point of the discussion when one person mentioned the dogs should be able to run free since we should be healthy and so should our dogs. I thought, “oh no then what about me? They must already think I’m unhealthy? A mess? I won’t fit in,” See, I don’t fit in with the healthy eating craze. I try, oh heck, I don’t try. I’m usually too poor to buy all the organic, gluten free, fat free, chemical free, animal abuse free products. And then there’s the problem that my family’s legacy is obesity and food addictions. My grandma was anorexic and tried to control everyone’s food intake around them. I think that’s what started it. Grandpa was large. I rebelled and like all my rebellions, I’m paying the price.
So that’s me. Now, will I still be accepted? It made me worry. Do we all have to be alike? I know it’s human nature to want to fit in. At co-housing will we all be part of a group think? Carbon copies? I took a deep breath and thought, no, it’ll be okay. We will be neighbors. Just neighbors. Friendly neighbors. And I hope we’ll accept all types of diversity.
UPDATE to my own questions:
Yes, I didn’t fit in. Sure, I found some nice people to talk to and some that may have blossomed into friendships if we had more time. But there was a clique of 30 somethings that seemed to run the place and really hated anyone being proactive. That meant me. So, I became a punching bag later.
It’s true I wanted to move in right away when I saw the presentation about cohousing by the group forming in my town. I believed all the positives and brushed over the negatives. Plus, they addressed that in the power point – what if your neighbors are assholes? They said, what if you are the asshole? And one of the founders of the USA movement, CharlesDurrett says that you can’t be an asshole because later you will need your neighbor to babysit or help you out. Oh, Charles, I wish it were true. It’s amazing how far some people don’t care about their community and the ideal dream of cohousing.
In this post (which I started writing since I had planned to have a blog all along to mark my life in cohousing not realizing I”d want out so fast), you can see some of the worries I did have – and how I brushed them off. I became so focused on cohousing that I put down the community I did have around me. I soooooo miss that gym and made lots of friends there. I never felt lonely as a parent with adults around in the homeschooling groups. In Minnesota, I wasn’t cohousing so it was lonely as a parent (and cold so no one was outside), and yes cohousing is worse than a small town, you do know everything about everyone. You don’t have to tell your life story and what I did share with people was used against me so I’d hold back and see if people in your group have integrity or not.
The neighbors did notice the clutter on my porch but helped me clean it up. I did it because I believed in working together as a community. Now I don’t have a carport or a yard so life is very good! I also see from reading this how concerned I was with my actions and making a cohesive community but once I moved in, it looks like I was the only one. Most others were out for themselves. If I was with a more proactive group, which I have met some, I may have fit in and things would be very different. But I naively thought that having a conflict management team meant people work on these things – ha! I didn’t realize how everyone is a human and so vulnerable to groupthink and mob rule!
The pet policy bit me in the ass. No one followed it. Let their dogs run all over and bit my child. I was more concerned for the younger kids being bit when we made the policy. Dog poop everywhere like we didn’t live together or something! And, no, diversity was not welcome. Especially of various incomes and ways of thinking besides entitled and privileged.
We ended up moving in Aug 2019 so the kids were 14 and 9. We moved out July 5 for an escape and then permanently after the disastrous mediator held a final yes, we should blame me meeting in August 2020. Soon, I’ll give details of why I left – the whole incident that made the place come out with pitchforks against me. Maybe you’ll agree with them, I was the asshole.
I am not always a fan of his thoughts, but Laird’s Blog on Community and Consensus is one of the few places you can find the truth on community living because he blogs about his time working with all sorts of ICs all over the country. Today’s is a great post about privacy and transparency. I think about this a lot because I lean towards total transparency and when one family and then a few other families’ children started behaving in ways that affected all the children in the community, I reacted privately which became public and then became a bone of contention for everyone. One other family had already decided to leave and move out so I thought it was serious. I also still wonder what other “secrets” I should mention to the group before I leave forever (in two months, but who’s counting?). I think there are some questions with transparecency still about posting meeting notes quickly so everyone knows what the committees are doing and if some should get paid for their work hours. But, they already proved as a group that hearing from me is the last thing they want.