A House in Sicily

A House in Sicily




The captivating memoir of a resourceful woman who started life anew in the "most beautiful house in Sicily"

For fifty years, at Casa Cuseni in the small Sicilian town of Taormina, Daphne Phelps has extended her English charm and warm hospitality to seasoned travelers and professional escapists as well as to writers and artists like Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell, Henry Faulkner, and Roald Dahl. This memoir tells their story, and hers.

It begins in 1947 when, thirty-four years old and war-weary, a modest Englishwoman arrived in Taormina with little Italian, less money, and a plan to sell the property she had unexpectedly inherited. Instead, she fell in love, not just with the airy quarters of the golden stone house on a hillside but also with a community and its way of life. To save Casa Cuseni from certain demolition, Daphne converted her enchanting inheritance into the wondrous pensione that for nearly half a century she has run with the blessing of every Taorminan from the local silk-shirted godfather, Don Ciccio, to Concetta Genio, her steadfast cook, housekeeper, and friend.

"A loving portrait ... of a vanishing way of life." — New York Times Book Review

"The often humorous clash of cultures ... [and] the stories of the ordinary Sicilian men and women who populate the pages that make this book, and this place, so special,... so thoroughly alive." — Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786707942
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 10/01/2000
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 8.15(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Diane Phelps's Sicilian house and garden have been featured in The World of Interiors and numerous other publications. A House in Sicily is her first book.

Denis Mack Smith is the author of Modern Italy: A Political History and Mussolini: A Biography.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The First Months

We left Victoria in a cold grey drizzle in the first week of February 1948. My companion was Eve Gibbs and I could not have been more fortunate. She was convalescent after an illness and had been advised to have a complete break. To Sicilian men who had not met professional women she would seem a dark-eyed beauty and little more. In fact she had been the only woman on a business efficiency team sent to the US after the war to get up to date with staff management and other business affairs. She had also been head of training in the huge John Lewis Partnership. The only disadvantage was that she had no Italian, and I little more.

    At Calais it was still pouring. It never stopped raining until we left Switzerland and found blue sky and dazzling sun as we emerged from the tunnel under the Alps. Italians looked shabby, hungry and pale; they had had a hard war. Not so the sleeper attendant who said that he'd left us to the last 'because with your beautiful smiles you would not be angry'. He regaled us with risqué stories of other passengers and showed every sign of wishing to spend the night with us. But we were firm: it was our first encounter with the Italian pappagallo. On the next train after Rome we each received the first of many proposals of marriage. Foreign women were all considered rich and they were then few and far between. It was always worth trying.

    I slept with my precious documents, prepared by the Italian legal attaché in London, under my pillow. Without them I could not even haveentered Casa Cuseni. The train divided at the Straits and one by one the pieces were shunted on to the ferry for Messina in Sicily. At Messina I changed into my deepest black. It was only five months since my uncle's death and I had never worn mourning. But I was thankful I had changed in time. To have appeared in ordinary clothes would have led to disaster at the very beginning. I would have shocked everyone profoundly. Five years was considered by most to be the correct mourning for an uncle, ten for a parent and the rest of one's life for a spouse. Few women after their twenties were out of black.

    Never shall I forget the sensation of our arrival in Sicily. The sky was the bluest of blues; on one side of the train the sea was sparkling, to the other were mountains, and orange and lemon groves. The sun was dazzling. It was hot. Nowadays, it must be difficult for people who have always been free to travel to realise the sheer exhilaration and sense of liberation we felt after so many years of being boxed up in England, in war conditions, with the phrase 'Is your journey really necessary?' constantly ringing in our ears. We dashed in amazement from one side of the carriage to the other, it was almost too much after the years of war and drabness.

    At Taormina we were met by Don Carlo, my uncle's old and faithful friend, who gave us lunch in his family's hotel. After the meal, which was lavish compared with what was legally permitted in England, we went to the magistrate's office with my documents. He stamped them and sent an official to Casa Cuseni with us to help me break the seals which had been placed on all doors by the British Consul and the town council immediately after my uncle's funeral. They were not a defence against burglars, simply bits of tape (stamped with a seal at either end) stretched across the openings and were meant to show the family that no one had passed through since my uncle's death. Only I had the right to break them.

    At the gate was a small crowd of retainers and their families all in deepest black. One by one they kissed my hand. Buneri, the gardener, with over thirty-five years of service, was silent and sad. Clearly he had worked steadily before my arrival; the garden was overflowing with freesias, cinerarias, roses, stocks, star of the Veldt, even petunias, and above it all were almond trees in full bloom. The scent was overwhelming under the warm spring sunshine. Turiddu, manservant and chauffeur, with only thirty years, was as ebullient and self-important as I had remembered him, repeatedly stressing his (questionable) devotion to my family. Don Carlo had mercifully brought an English-speaking nephew with him, who had once been a liaison officer with the RAF. Turiddu was distressingly graphic in his description of how he had found my uncle dead in bed. He looked fat and prosperous, but his wife and children had clearly suffered hunger during the war.

    Maria, the cook, who had worked for my uncle for forty-seven years, ever since she was sixteen, was not to be seen. She had watched the house and garden being slowly created and had become a legend in our family. I found her waiting with dignity, tears streaming down her face, on the terrace in front of the house. Her welcome was cool as she kissed my hand. She had expected me, she said, to be my elder sister; I had only been there once before, whereas my sister had been a guest more often, more recently. Many women will work happily for a man, but hate being 'under' a woman. I was to bless my psychiatric training; while I became nominally mistress of the house, I left her in undisputed charge of the kitchen quarters. I never crossed their threshold until one day, after three months, she invited me in; the next day she spoke Sicilian to me as she had always with Don Roberto. I knew the battle was won.

    Maria was an illiterate peasant, a stout, elephantine figure with alarmingly swollen legs supporting her huge body. Her wits were very much about her and, had she wanted to, she could have made my Cuseni life a burden. She had worshipped Don Roberto. He had been by far the most important man in her life. One day when she had worked for him a mere thirty years, breakfast, usually at 8 a.m., was a few minutes late and Maria, surprisingly, was in her best clothes. 'Maria, why the finery?' Nervously she replied, 'Signore, I was married this morning.' Then hastily, 'But I arranged it at a time least inconvenient for you.' My uncle was furious: it was not at all convenient — he should have been consulted. But the wily Maria knew that, had she consulted him, she would never have been married; consent would never have been given. It turned out that her husband was her cousin who, in need of a housekeeper after his mother had died, had married to settle a boundary dispute. Maria continued in Casa Cuseni while Don Leo, her husband, was sent to the country to guard and tend her mountain property; he lived with her only when Don Roberto was away and the two were invaluable caretakers at Casa Cuseni — a splendid arrangement for all.

    Buneri, the gardener, was as thin as Maria was bulky. He too was illiterate. He was a gentle, undemanding soul; a peasant deeply attached to his family, his small mountain property and his beloved garden. Sadly, he was slowly going blind. The contrast with Maria was great: during the war, unlike her, he had worked steadily for the Italians, and then for the Germans and finally the British, occupying Casa Cuseni, while Maria — who had made no secret of her feeling for Don Roberto — was suspected as an enemy sympathising with the Allies. Thus the Germans had turned her out for three long years. Buneri had no difficulty in transferring his devotion to me.

    Turiddu was very different from the other two. He had been one of the first Fascists in Taormina — attracted, childlike, to the bands and flags — but the bottom of his world had fallen out when it looked as if he might have to go and fight in Abyssinia. He hastily obtained a medical certificate: not a difficult feat if you knew the right people. One of our problems with him was that he knew so much more about Sicilian life than we did and he mistook this for general male superiority. My Italian was only fractionally better than Eve's. He, who had never tackled a foreign language, was quite ignorant of the difficulties of learning one when we were so preoccupied with other problems. Like most Sicilians he had never met professional women — they barely existed in Sicily in 1948 — and he did not expect us to have minds of our own. Alas, he was not suited to being a woman's servant. Don Roberto had put up with him because he was amused by his histrionic outrageousness, and touched by his dog-like devotion until he gradually absorbed Mussolini's denunciations of the English. 'If you feel like that about the English,' my exasperated uncle would exclaim, 'you shouldn't be working for an Englishman. You're fired!' This after twenty-five years' service. Shaken and absent for a day or two, Turiddu would return contrite, and almost apologetic, until the next outburst and dismissal. It was a kind of game they played, but not one that I could manage.

    It was owing to everyone's devotion to Don Roberto that I got into the house my very first day — a feat declared impossible by a leading English resident who had suggested that we would have to spend a night in the luxury hotel, the San Domenico. This would have cost half our exiguous allowance!

    That evening a recovered Maria turned out the unused kitchen and served a five-course dinner, while Turiddu and his wife prepared the bedrooms that had once been my grandmother's and her lady's maid's. Meanwhile I had to sign many documents to take personal responsibility for the house and its contents. Several people whom I didn't recognise told me that Don Roberto had always considered their son, daughter or other relation as his adopted niece or nephew. Their eye was clearly on the main chance as they hoped to ingratiate themselves with me by kissing me on both cheeks. They didn't.

As I had guessed, and told the Bank of England, the next few months were far from a holiday: they were filled with weariness and confusion and involved long hours of exhausting concentration while dealing with complicated legal problems with my feeble Italian. I struggled to understand what my lawyer and the notary said (the latter, a rather worn old man, had to be addressed as Magnifico), striving not to say 'Yes' when I meant 'No', and above all trying to avoid signing my name in the wrong place.

    'You may trust people if you like — it is better not to,' said Don Carlo ominously. By now he was calling himself my uncle.

    Later I was to be proffered blank pages and asked to sign. I told them that my father was a lawyer and that, from earliest years, he had warned me never to sign anything before reading it. My lawyer was chosen by Don Carlo who told me he was very rich, the most eligible bachelor in Taormina, and certain to be the next judge. He was in deepest, blackest mourning for an uncle who had died about the same time as mine, but I was dressed in colours again, having, we hoped, persuaded them that we thought that mourning was felt inside and not shown by clothes. The general gloom of the lawyer's appearance was accentuated by coal black hair, eyes and moustache.

    He bowed to me, kissed my hand and announced, 'Signorina, were I not like this,' with a wide gesture of his hands, 'I would ask you to come out with me.'

    It was a lucky escape, I felt.

    Five witnesses came to the house, gave their names, those of their fathers and their dates of birth, and were then prepared, it seemed, to swear that black was white — or to anything that they felt would be in my interest — which was fortunate. I asked Eve to disguise her presence as far as possible (she was far too attractive for that, especially among a group of Sicilian men) and just sit watching their faces and gestures, whilst I would try to concentrate on the language and avoid taking any drastic decision until she and I had had time to compare notes.

    A serious difficulty was that the manager of the Bank of Sicily refused to accept my documents. These should have given access to the money my uncle had thoughtfully left in his account, assuming that I would be able to draw on it at once. First the manager insisted that a special stamp was missing; then a signature from Rome had to be procured; then a seal from London, and so on and on. It was some time before I discovered that the rogue wanted to buy the front garden to build himself a house on a site by now considered almost central. He calculated that if he kept me short of cash I would have to sell at a bargain price. He also tried to buy some of my uncle's pictures at rock bottom prices. I let him have one as a sweetener, but it was of little use. The blocking continued.

    Slowly we proved the validity of my uncle's English will and the power of attorney my aunt had given me to act in her name. Curiously enough I then became her procuratrice. I had thought that a simple thing to start with would have been to get house and contents valued; my English lawyer had asked for this as soon as possible. I was told that there was no such thing as a valuer, honest or no. This seemed odd, but I couldn't shake them. What then should I do?

    'You could ask the cabinet-maker to do it.'

    I didn't think that the English probate authorities would accept his valuation of pictures, ceramics and other antiques. But they had to.

    The cabinet-maker's estimate came, in all, to a derisory £500. But when the lawyer looked at it he exclaimed, 'You can't send that, you'll be ruined!' And he reduced the figure to £250.

    I found myself in the absurd position of trying to push the figure up against him: 'Don't you see, Avvocato, that if we want to take things to England the Customs officials there will be strict. We must state a reasonable sum.' I knew that valuations for probate were kept low, but even so, £250 could hardly have been accepted. In the end when, months later, I decided that I might be able to stay and so keep possessions here, the problem disappeared, but not before I had succeeded in getting the figure raised once more to £500!

    The possibility that Don Roberto's insurance policies might have run out was an alarming one, and if they had, I couldn't imagine how I could pay the premiums in view of the present lack of cash. I asked Don Carlo where they were.

    'There aren't any,' he answered.

    'It can't be true. Don Roberto was English, a Yorkshireman at that. Of course he was insured. Everyone is insured.'

    'He never was.'

    It hardly seemed possible, but I had to accept his word. However, on going through papers I [bund three large insurance policies covering everything.

    I produced them triumphantly: 'There, I knew it!'

    'Look at the dates, Signorina.'

    I did. It was incredible. They were for 1941, 1942 and 1943, the time when the Germans were in occupation. With Teutonic thoroughness they had overlooked nothing. They didn't know what the Englishman had discovered many years before: that one could pay as many instalments as one liked but that getting a claim paid by an Italian company was lengthy, expensive and very uncertain. So he had decided to shoulder the risk himself, like most Sicilians. Despite my original amazement I have followed Don Roberto's example and so far — I touch wood as we do and iron as Italians do — I have not regretted it. A friend suggested that when the Germans took out the policies they were so sure of winning the war that they thought they were protecting what they already regarded as their own property.

    The struggle to learn the language was wearing, when study necessarily took place after long days of dealing with endless kind visitors who felt it their duty to welcome my uncle's niece. Brief visits, they evidently felt, would hardly have been polite, so they would stay and stay until my head was reeling.

    At last they would say 'Signorina, it is time for me to togliere il disturbo and leave.' To which I was instructed that it was up to me to reply: 'No disturbance, I assure you, Signore, but a great pleasure.'

    This invariably had the effect of making them remain. I wilted.

    In addition to making an inventory of all the possessions and cataloguing the books, I had to learn how to manage property (war-damaged at that), something completely new to me; and to control a full-time staff of three. They were paid what seemed to me a pittance, but my uncle had given each of them a house.

    I was soon to learn the strength of Sicilian jealousy. My aunt had generously said that her brother's clothes should be distributed among the staff, although with rationing in England still severe, my brother and brother-in-law would have been glad if some had come their way. I had thought that my carefully considered division would have been accepted. Not a bit!

    Each one eyed the pile given to the others, then: 'Signorina, I wanted a raincoat for my husband, you've given me a suit.'

    Or, 'I wanted the long johns he always gave me.'

    'What about warm pyjamas?'

    It was a shock after English reticence.

    At least there was one major problem I thought I should not have to tackle: finding a buyer for the house. Within a day or two of the news of my uncle's death reaching England, Viscount Bridport, who was also the Duca di Bronte (the bilateral descendant of Lord Nelson through his sister), was on my doorstep in London. The title of Duca had been given to Nelson, together with a vast estate on the foothills of Etna, in return for his nefarious work propping up reactionary Bourbons.

    'We've always wanted that house, it's the most beautiful in Taormina. Please will you promise to give me the first refusal?'

    If we had to sell, as my uncle had declared, then the blow would be slightly softened if a member of the Nelson family bought it, one who appreciated the house's beauty and who had known my uncle.

    In 1947 the future of Italy was uncertain. The whole world was watching, hoping or fearing, according to the observer's political views, that she might become Communist. Togliatti, the leftist leader, was apparently close to Stalin and was often in Moscow. The Communist world then seemed a monolithic organisation and the Cold War was raging. Rumour had it that if the extreme left came to power then the US and its allies would try to hold the north as far as Rome and let the south go. Whether true or not, such theories did not encourage foreigners to invest in property in Sicily. It was therefore reasonable for the Duca to ask me to wait for a final decision until after the elections to be held in April 1948, and I agreed.

    When, a few months later, I arrived back in Taormina from London, it seemed as if the whole town knew that the Duca was to be the next owner. He had a cousin staying in the town who, it appeared, had been asked to keep an eye on me. If there were any rumours that I had entertained possible buyers, she would be up at once assuring me that the Duca was serious about the deal.

    Had the Communists won in April the only possible buyers would have been appalling nouveau riche types: vulgar, fat men of dubious origin, but almost certainly connected with the Mafia, then increasing its hold on Sicily. Two or three of these came up to the house with the manager of the San Domenico hotel where the Kaiser and Edward VII had stayed in the early years of the century, though not at the same time. This was one of the very few hotels then open and the Duca, a rich man in Sicily (but a poor one in England), always stayed there — a fact that was going to acquire considerable significance for me later. The manager clearly wished to claim a commission due by law to the person who introduced seller to buyer in property deals. I was delighted that I was able to tell him and his friends that the house was not for sale.

    One looked disappointed: 'We would like to see over it.'

    'Signore, I hoped you had understood that it is not for sale.'

    'Then you are throwing us out?'

    'Yes, if you put it like that, I am! And now Signor Direttore, I have an appointment. Please leave.'

    I may have made unpleasant enemies like this, so I was grateful to the Duca for the protection afforded by his intention to buy.

    When the time came, the Catholic Church exerted all its power, particularly over the women who were then to vote for the first time, and after a violent election the result was a landslide for the Christian Democrats (and indirectly the Mafia). The party and its allies were to govern Italy for the next forty years or so.

    The Duca had discussed with my brother in London the matter of price and, equally important, as we both wanted sterling, the amount to be paid in either currency. It had been agreed that the Duca should give me his decision before midnight on 23 April. He arrived at Casa Cuseni at five o'clock and insisted on seeing over the whole house, insensitive to my feelings of imminent loss as he decided that he would add an extra bathroom here, and a washbasin there, and change the colours of the walls.

    If it was painful for me, it was far worse for poor Maria who had known and loved the house from the laying of the first stone; the whole place was bound up with the memory of her adored Don Roberto. Hoping to spare her, I suggested that the Duca needn't inspect her kitchen. But he insisted that he wished to see everything. She was dignified; she kissed the Duca's hand and called him Eccellenza. Then she stood, arms akimbo, with her back to her larder — at least one bit should be kept from him for the present.

    Buneri had tears in his eyes but he too kissed hands.

    Suddenly in rushed Turiddu. Entirely out of character he had somehow got left behind. 'Eccellenza, welcome, welcome!' There was no doubt about his intention to get in with the new lot ...

    The Duca, saying he had an appointment at six, suggested that there was no need for him to look over the garden — he knew it so well. On the contrary, I replied, it was important that we should discuss the boundary. My aunt, now the owner, had agreed that we should keep some of the land above Casa Cuseni and, with the money that we could not take out of Italy, build a small house for the family to visit from time to time. The Duca said he must leave: would I agree to him postponing his final decision until the next morning when he would come up at ten o'clock? Of course I agreed.

    The 23rd of April is the day sacred to San Giorgio, the patron saint of England and of Castelmola, the small hilltop village above Taormina where the saint is deeply revered. My uncle never missed a festa. He was admired as much in the village as he was in Taormina. When the saint on a magnificent white stallion had had to be repainted, the townsfolk wouldn't pay the painter until Don Roberto had inspected the work and declared, 'It is well done — he merits.'

    When, after the war, the village had received a small grant from the government and they were asked what they would like to spend it on — either a water supply or the restoration of the twelfth-century church of San Giorgio — they voted and San Giorgio won. I rather think that the women who had to carry all the water up on their heads were not allowed to vote ...

    After leaving us that evening, the Duca drove up to Castelmola in his Rolls Bentley and we, with scarves on our heads, walked up the steep, rough mountain path with Buneri and Turiddu. The evening before, the saint had been moved in procession from his church to the modern Duomo which left more room for the devotion of the people. There he was, on his horse, with little Santa Margherita praying on her knees by the horse's feet while the ferocious dragon threatened her. (We saw with amusement that the stone commemorating the Emperor Constantine's visit in the fourth century had been translated from the Greek and the date of the great converter to Christianity changed to three hundred years before the birth of Christ — BC instead of AD.)

    The ducal party, dressed in Scottish tweeds as for a point-to-point, were sitting on the only fair-sized balcony overlooking the Piazza. The Duca spotted us and graciously invited Eve and me to sit with them. I declined, saying that I had promised to go round with the procession as Don Roberto had always done (though he would have been sketching the wonderful figures and faces).

    I was glad that I had done so because suddenly a man detached himself from the crowd and shouted: 'Don Roberto is dead, but we have his representative still with us!' I had thought that no one knew who I was.

    After midnight we walked back down the rugged path to Casa Cuseni.

    The next morning the Duca arrived punctually at ten. We shook hands and then he said briefly and abruptly, 'I'm not buying. I hope I haven't upset you too much?'

    It was an appalling blow: one moment I was going to have millions of lire and the next none. I would not be able to pay the staff, nor my uncle's legacies, nor even be able to stay on while I searched for another buyer. Had he struck me twice in the face he could not have shaken me more, but I amazed myself: my public school training had so conditioned me that I never blinked an eyelid until he left us alone. I was shattered. He had taken seven months to come to this decision, when we could have been seeking other buyers. Yesterday he was buying, we both felt certain. Whatever had happened to change his mind?

    Don Carlo was equally amazed. We searched for reasons: was it that I had refused to sit with him at the festa, or that I had not congratulated the Duchess on the recent birth of a son and heir?

    'The Duca,' I said, 'is a British naval officer, not a Sicilian. He would certainly not have allowed these minor slights, if slights they were, to interfere with a wish to own Casa Cuseni, which had been in his mind for so long.' It seemed to me that his lack of any explanation was neither British nor naval.

    It was Don Carlo's nephew who produced a possible solution. This deal had been fixed in England where no commission would have been paid to the fixer. In Taormina for years property sales had been few and far between. People wanted money; this deal did not please them and they stopped it.

    'But who and when? I know exactly where the Duca was last night — at Castelmola and he stayed late. Who could have changed his mind, and how?'

    'They would have threatened to destroy his fruit orchard from which he derives his wealth, or they would have told him that Casa Cuseni was not a good buy, its foundations had been damaged by bombs — they would have found any reason to put him off.'

    It sounded very mafioso, but the nephew was probably right. It would also have explained the Duca's silence and failure to give a reason for this extraordinary behaviour. Perhaps the insulted San Domenico manager had played his part?

    We were now right back to the beginning. I desperately hoped that we could avoid selling that much-loved house to one of the vulgarians who had wanted it. The immediate and more pressing problem was that we could not stay on with no money. Eve and I rapidly divided the furniture into three groups, putting sticky labels on to each piece: the first lot was to be sold; the second to be sent, when possible, to England; and the third, labelled Casetta, to be kept for the little house we might some day build above. At that time I had not the slightest idea of the great value of much of the furniture, but I was determined that it should not be sold for the pittance offered by the local antique dealers.

    We could not possibly keep on three full-time staff. It was essential that the house should be occupied to guard against burglars, and we couldn't, if we were going to sell, neglect the garden. Growth and decay are rapid in Sicily, and watering a necessity. Besides, both Maria and Buneri had had longer periods of service and shown their steady devotion — in contrast to Turiddu's rather chequered career. It was clear that he would have to be the one to go, especially as we should need neither a cameriere (general manservant) nor a chauffeur. I consulted my lawyer who said he thought a man should do the dismissal, but I felt that I, as a member of the family and as my aunt's procuratrice, should do it.

    I sat on the splendid baroque throne, that had once belonged to a bishop, and summoned Turiddu to the salone. I broke the bad news as kindly as I could.

    At once he began shouting and screaming, flailing his arms around: 'Thrown to the door like a dog after thirty years of devoted service! I shall sue!'

    I wish I had followed my lawyer's advice. The next days were horrible. Turiddu insisted on waiting at table, but instead of his usual garrulity, he placed himself silently right behind my chair; I seemed to feel his blazing eyes boring through my back. He had been lent a gun by Don Carlo, 'to protect the Signorina with', but I feared he might turn it on me. I assured him that in due course he would be paid all that the law prescribed, but he would have to wait like the others until I could get possession of the money — and I reminded him that my uncle had given him a house. I had to call the lawyer in. He, as a man and a Sicilian, would stand no nonsense and I almost felt sorry for the monstrous Turiddu.

    Eve and I left for England in early May, thinking it quite possible that we might never see Casa Cuseni again.

    'We haven't accomplished anything we came out to do,' I said, in despair.

    'Yes, but we still stand possessed of everything we found,' said Eve, 'and that's no mean feat.'

    She was wrong, but I only discovered it years later.

Customer Reviews