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Sicily, It's Not Quite Tuscany
By Shamus Sillar
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Shamus Sillar
All rights reserved.
Si cacci lu sceccu, tardu arrivi; si camina tardu, prestu arrivi.
If you urge the donkey on, you'll arrive late; if you let the donkey amble, you'll arrive early.
— Sicilian proverb
I'm sipping arancia rossa (blood orange juice) and gazing down on the Mediterranean, its surface puckered in a westerly wind. Gill has given me the window seat; she always does — it's why I married her.
An hour out of Rome, seven tiny islands appear, like the backs of swimming turtles. These are the famous Aeolians. In my best Italian accent, I recite their vowelly, singsong names from my map: 'Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina!' (My best Italian accent, it turns out, is part Joe Dolce's 'Shaddup You Face' and part Gary Oldman in Dracula.) Then our plane is over the Sicilian mainland. I see parched rivers and russet hills; a landscape sucked dry by the sun.
Finally, Mount Etna. She's dark and indistinct, swathed in cloud, keeping her cards up her sleeve. At the bottom of the volcano's slope, sprawling blackly against the stained sea, a city: Catania.
'Big and grim': that's how Paul Theroux described Catania (in The Pillars of Hercules). Awash with drugs and pollution. A place only a mafioso could love. It's a place Gill and I will call 'home' for the coming year. I haven't told Gill about Theroux's sketch. I feel a twinge of guilt about this. Then again, she knows about the Mafia in general, of course, and about the risk of Etna's eruptions. Neither of those things has dampened her enthusiasm.
The pilot mustn't like the place either. He seems almost reluctant to land. We pass directly over the city and its port full of oxidised ships and swing out to sea again. Minutes tick by. We're heading in the direction of Libya. Hijacked?
Finally the plane circles back towards land. Gill grabs my hand for the descent. Outside I see a yellow smear of beach on Catania's southern edge. That's where we head now, dropping steadily. A circle of choppy sea fills my window. I can make out individual waves, a man on a bobbing boat. The beach flits by within jumping distance. Then, the thud of asphalt.
A few days later, standing on the sand myself, I marvel at how low the planes fly before they land. The Catanese around me hardly glance up. September is here, so they're desperately wringing the last good times out of a fading summer, focusing not on the 747s above but on the even noisier circus of the beach and its clutter of deckchairs, umbrellas, cabins and volleyball nets; the men in those tight, skimpy swimming shorts so mysteriously favoured in Europe, and the women in bikinis dancing to novelty remixes of 'La Macarena'.
* * *
Gill has accepted a job in Catania with a private language college called Giga. The word is a combination of the first two letters of Giorgio and Gaia, the names of two Sicilian children whose mother, Palmina, is the founder and director of the college — Gill's boss. She's waiting to pick us up at the airport.
Palmina drives a red Smart car — smart, indeed, when it comes to manoeuvring through the dangerous, stony narrows of an Italian city; highly stupid, however, if you need to fit three people and several heavy suitcases. We somehow houdini ourselves inside and set off.
Gill and Palmina make small talk — Palmina in thickly accented English, Gill trying to convert her respectable French into passable Italian. But I'm muzzled by a faceful of luggage. I can't even turn my head to look out the window. I do hear the city, though — a constant salvo of car horns, Italian ambulances with their distinctive warbling sirens, and the shrill, two-stroke buzz of Vespas.
'We're here,' says Palmina after twenty minutes. 'Your apartment.'
The women shovel bags aside in the manner of rescue workers, freeing me from my seat. I fidget my way out of the car's micro-door onto the herringbone cobbles of a grimy backstreet. This is Via Gesuiti — 'Street of the Jesuits' — our new address.
'So,' I ask Gill, 'how was your first glimpse of Catania?'
'Nice,' she says politely, with an anxious sideways glance at Palmina. Somewhere in the distance, a polygraph machine scribbles furiously on a page.
Palmina doesn't notice: she's fiddling around with our front-door keys. Once we and our luggage are inside, she speeds off down the road in a red blur. It seems a mildly hasty departure, almost as though she's hoping to evade our scrutiny of the accommodation that Giga has found for us.
The apartment occupies one corner of the ground floor of a palazzo. What an exciting word, 'palazzo'. For me it evokes ornate, Versailles-style buildings full of frescoed corridors and manicured lawns, with estate owners in Mozart wigs drinking fortified wines on the lawn and calling from time to time on the services of a piss boy.
That, however, would be to misinterpret the word. Palazzo is a 'false friend' — its meaning is different to what you might expect. Another false friend in Italian is dottore (doctor). In Italy, a doctor isn't necessarily a highly educated medical practitioner; rather, it's anyone who's done a three-year university degree at undergraduate level. And it doesn't have to be a medical degree — even doing a Bachelor of Arts is enough to earn you the title dottore. How very different from Australia, where we refer to BA graduates not as 'doctors' but as 'drug dealers' or 'the unemployed'.
Similarly, a palazzo is not a palace at all. Well, it can be. But it can also be something far less impressive — a shabby multistorey apartment block with peeling stucco and rusted balconies, for instance. And that's exactly where Gill and I find ourselves now.
Further disappointment awaits. The apartment's large living area and master bedroom are both padlocked shut. All that's left is an L-shaped corridor with a tiny table and two chairs, and a couple of cramped side rooms. We're effectively renting one third of an apartment. And it's costing a considerable chunk of Gill's modest salary.
Later, when I ask Palmina about the extra rooms, she tells us they're being used as storage and aren't part of the rental deal.
'Landlady,' she corrects me, after I make disparaging remarks about the landlord. 'She's a nun.'
I'm surprised a nun needs storage space, let alone owns a palazzo. I thought they abandoned all their worldly possessions. Or is that prison inmates?
Miffed about these two out-of-bounds rooms, I'll spend hours over the next months trying to pick both locks. I'll also hear sporadic shuffling from behind the two doors in the night; even a low, ghostly moan. It turns out I'm just hallucinating from sleep deprivation — more about that later.
The nun hasn't locked everything away. A liberal assortment of religious trinkets remains: crucifixes, church calendars, saintly ornaments — more Jesuses than a Spanish phonebook. On the wall above the rusty stove in the kitchen is a thermometer decorated with a picture of the Pope. The apartment is so church-like, I think about setting up a collection box at the front door as a way of skimming some euros back from the nun's extravagant rental sum.
Aside from Catholic accoutrements, though, the apartment is monastically austere. The bedroom looks like the antechamber of a mausoleum — cold marble with just a sliver of a clothes cupboard, the kind you could smash into kindling with one blow. 'Are they kidding?' says Gill, eyeing the cupboard and then her gargantuan suitcase.
The beds are the killer. Since we're newlyweds, a letto matrimoniale (double bed) would have been nice. Instead, there are two singles made of frigid metal. They look like discards from an asylum. I half expect to find looped leather straps for the wrists and ankles, and a mute American Indian mopping the floor in the corner.
They're also impossibly heavy, but we manage to drag them together. There's a ten-centimetre difference in height where they join.
'On the bright side,' I say to Gill, 'at least when you want to have sex you can just roll over from your side and drop right on top of me.'
Gill feigns a laugh but I can see that she's glum. Perched on the end of the bed, she sheds a tiny tear of disappointment. I do what I can to comfort her (juggle, pretend to pull a coin from behind her ear, recite pi to forty places). But even I am gnawed by the realisation that our dream of an extended Mediterranean honeymoon spent in a modest but sunny bedsit next to a pebbled beach has, for the moment at least, eluded us.
* * *
At six pm we emerge from our clutter of half-emptied suitcases to forage for food. Our body clocks are saying it's three am and our last meal was two flights ago, somewhere over Istanbul.
It's our first saunter on Sicilian soil and the place looks excitingly different, albeit down at heel. One block north of Via Gesuiti we strike Via G. Clementi, a busy road clogged with scooters and an unglamorous assortment of shops and services. The 'G' might well stand for grim.
Several outdoor merchants are in operation. On one footpath, a fellow roasts buttery chestnuts in a drum. He's the same shape as the drum and the same sooty colour. Chestnuts are popular in Catania. In a country lane not far from the city you'll find the world's biggest chestnut tree, four thousand years old with a girth of sixty metres.
Next, Gill and I spy a portable chiosco (kiosk). It's a small caravan — the kind found on countless urban corners in Sicily — serving takeaway drinks and pastries. Two oily mechanics stand there with beers.
On another footpath, a chain-smoking grandpa boils sheep's offal in a metal cauldron. Every few minutes, he dumps a ladle of steaming, squiggly organs onto a marble counter and hacks them into bite-sized chunks. I watch a man on a Vespa drive right up, spin a one-euro coin onto the counter, and slurp down a strand of hot, baggy intestines that he's picked up with his fingers.
'We could eat there,' I suggest to Gill.
Luckily for her, she's noticed a wood-fired pizza restaurant nearby. I've always equated Italian pizzas with simplicity: a smear of tomato sauce, two olives and a basil leaf. But this place, Pizzeria Pavone, boasts forty varieties of pizza and an astonishing array of ingredients: boiled egg, carrots, raw onion, salmon, peas, truffle oil, Emmental cheese, fried zucchini. One pizza has Nutella drizzled all over it. Another, called 'pizza fantasy', comes formidably topped with French fries, German sausage and ketchup. The only ingredient missing from the menu is pineapple, since Italians would be more disturbed to find a piece of pineapple on their pizza than, say, a pubic hair.
Ignoring the flamboyant offerings, Gill keeps things simple with a margherita (tomato, mozzarella, basil). She enjoys it so much it becomes her pizza of choice for our entire year in Sicily. One thing about my wife, she's loyal. When she finds something she likes, she sticks to it.
'Why don't you try something different?' I ask from time to time.
'Because I don't want to try something different.'
'But maybe you'll find something that you really, really love.'
'I really, really love margherita.'
'Yes, but maybe your perfect pizza is out there, just waiting to be ordered.'
'Well, it can wait as long as it likes.'
As an unabashed 'foodie', I'd rather see Gill push the culinary boat out from time to time, but at least her philosophy of allegiance augurs well for our marriage.
Meanwhile, I order a pizza rustica: salty olives, salty capers, very salty anchovies, and salt. It's the kind of pizza that doesn't put hair on your chest so much as peptic ulcers on your duodenum. I'm soon gasping for a beer.
As it happens, Sicily doesn't have a signature beer. The preferred drop is Birra Moretti, a Heineken-owned product from northern Italy. As lagers go, it's unexceptional. But the label is brilliant. It features a working-class man with a handlebar moustache and porkpie hat, holding an enormous mug of frothy brew up to his lips. Apparently when the Moretti people saw this fellow in a bar half a century ago and asked if they could photograph him as the face of their beverage, he requested only one thing in return: that they buy him another beer.
I, too, order another. I figure a few drinks will not only combat the desiccating effect of my pizza rustica but allow a few hours' sleep in my asylum-issue bed.
It works. I don't move until six am. When I do wake, it's to the sound of a single loud click! followed by a strange drawn-out hiss. For about half a minute I'm utterly disorientated. Then the fog clears: we're in Sicily; we moved here yesterday.
Sicily. How very surreal. I take a tiny peek under my sheets for a horse's head.
Meanwhile, the hissing sound continues: 'Sssssssssssssssssssssss ...' As I start to wonder what's going on, it swells to a terrifying roar: 'FUNGHI! ... MELONI! ... FRAGOLE! ... SPINACI!' Then there's just the hiss again, and the racing thump of my heart.
A minute passes. Suddenly: 'BANANE! ... FINOCCHI!... ARANCE! ... MELE!' Gill has also shot up from her pillow like a stepped-on rake. Our two hearts thump as one.
I draw back the slatted curtain and peer groggily outside. The sun is already strong. Two feet away on the pavement, a well-bellied man in a flat cap (known in Sicily as a coppola, like the film director) is standing beside a wooden cart full of fruit and vegetables, clutching a loudhailer. Incredible. In a city of three hundred thousand people, this farmer has determined that our street corner — indeed, the very footpath outside our bedroom — is the perfect place to peddle his produce. The initial click that broke my sleep was his loudhailer being switched on; the roar that followed was his sales pitch.
'MELANZANE! ... POMODORI! ... ANANAS! ...PATATE! '
There he goes again. Mamma mia, that's loud.
Our rowdy street seller has probably done us a favour in waking us so early. It's a gorgeous morning and our to-do list is a mile long.
First on the list is finding a farmacia (chemist): I desperately need eye drops. I suffer from pterygia, triangle-shaped growths on the membranes of my eyes. Pterygia are common among Aussies who spent too long at the beach as children. They're not cancerous, just red and ugly — especially when irritated by wind and dry weather. Flying is the worst. After fifteen hours on a plane, I look like Satan's spawn. Customs officials start lubricating their gloves before I even hand over my passport. Palmina must have got the shock of her life when she met me at the airport, especially with the superstition of 'evil eye' (malocchio) so entrenched in Sicily. So, if I want to become a regular functioning member of society, I'll need extra-strength Visine.
I'm not the only one with ophthalmological issues. A stray cat is sunning itself in the street outside our apartment. One of its eyes is ruptured and gooey, obviously from a fight. Catania is overrun with stray cats and most of them look like they've just gone twelve rounds with a milkshake blender.
The farmacia is a breeze — even my first attempts at speaking the language are a success. ('No, I'm not a Cacodaemon. I just need some eye drops.')
Next, we need to navigate our way to Gill's place of work, the Giga school on Via Rocca Romana. It will be a 'dry run' before Gill teaches her first class the next day. Palmina has shown us directions on a map.
It proves to be a simple fifteen-minute stroll along Via Antonino di Sangiuliano and up Via Santa Maddalena, near enough to the very heart of the city, the centro. As we walk, I mentally catalogue everything I see: black basalt streets; Baroque buildings of fading splendour; brief flashes of Eurochic; a preposterous number of churches; corners of squalor; miniscule cars all dented and scraped; skinny teenagers riding in pairs on menacing scooters; baristas smoking outside their cafés; seven- foot Sudanese men hawking watches on footpaths; palm trees and sandy squares (my diary entry for the day reads: 'Have we come to North Africa by mistake?'); tiny box-shaped altars cut into the sides of buildings for statues of Christ or the Virgin Mary; tired palazzi; red-tiled domes; difficult cobblestones; ferocious gargoyles; even more ferocious graffiti ('POMPINARA!' screams one wall: 'Cocksucker!'); tiny wrought-iron balconies filled with potted plants and laundry pegs; bright orange buses; Roman remains; and, hanging from the occasional window, a rainbow-coloured flag saying 'PACE' (peace).
We find the Giga building but decide to stop for a coffee before going inside. There's a bar on the next corner.
As Gill and I walk towards the front door of our first Sicilian café, we hear the banshee screech of brakes from one block west. Spinning around, we watch a single grey hatchback travelling through the the intersection of Via Roccaromana and Via Nino Martoglio. It approaches at a completely normal speed and trajectory – entirely conventionally, in fact – except that it travels through the intersection on its side. The car looks momentarily like a breaching whale, the road its ocean, before finally coming to a shuddering halt.
Excerpted from Sicily, It's Not Quite Tuscany by Shamus Sillar. Copyright © 2012 Shamus Sillar. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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