This piece was originally published as part of The Independent’s That Summer series. Find out more about it here.
During the last tutorial of term, a compulsory month at an Italian language school was announced. I recoiled in horror at delighted shrieks of “let’s share a flat in Florence!” I wanted something magical to happen, not a sleep-over. And then an afterthought from Dr McLaughlin: “Don’t suppose any of you fancy a place in Sicily called Erice?”
I was reading Italian as a result of my bookish teens, and an overactive yearning for high romance. I knew little of modern Italy, even less about Sicily. The points of reference I armed myself with were at least 2,000 years old: that the Cyclops had lived in the area; that Erice had once been the centre of the cult of Venus and was named after her son, Eryx.
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Other than that, I had seen The Godfather and expected to spend my summer surrounded by women with headscarves and toothless men riding donkeys.
I fantasised about arriving in Palermo harbour by steamer, but practicality – and the overnight train – prevailed.
I didn’t feel too hard done by. My fellow couchette travellers included a very small and ancient couple in their black Sunday best, who crossed themselves whenever the train pulled out of a station; a soldier with melting chocolate eyes on leave from National Service; and a poet who gave me a signed copy of his latest collection of verse.
At dawn, we reached Scilla. The train uncoupled and shunted onto the ferry to cross the straits of Messina. On deck, I watched the coast of the mainland disappear, while a strange, discordant music filled the brisk morning air. I knew it was only heated train wheels cooling, but to me it was the siren’s song and I braced myself to see the clashing rocks of Charibdis close in on us.
Palermo: chaos, children hawking pirate cassette tapes from handcarts, my bus to Trapani nowhere to be found. Anxious, hot, unable to make myself understood in Italian.
And then my first experience of the kindness of strangers in the Mezzogiorno. A passer-by walked me to the “bus stop” (a stretch of main road with nothing to distinguish it from its surroundings) and fed me my first arancino: a deep-fried ball of rice with a spicy meat sauce at its heart, the essential initiation rite for the foreigner in Sicily, the taste of home for the Sicilian in exile.
One last connection in Trapani and I was alone on a bus roaring its vertiginous way up the side of a sheer cliff, the driver sounding a deafening klaxon at intervals but seemingly oblivious to the precipice that swung towards me as we rounded the hairpin bends.
We pulled into a deserted car park near the top of the mountain. In the pidgin adopted by all native speakers when addressing foreigners, the driver flapped at me: “Here! Erice! Off!”
Mid-afternoon in the Mediterranean, and nothing stirred. Before me a parapet and vast blue view across the haze of Trapani, sea on either side, to the Egadi islands floating on the horizon. Behind, an ancient stone wall. I panted and slipped my way up polished cobbles in the welcome shade of flanking blind walls, which gave no hint of the elaborate courtyards within.
Everything was silent and slumbering and the bubble of anxiety in my stomach started to turn to anticipation.
I passed under an alcoved bridge, with its protecting Madonna lit up in electric blue. A sharp bend to the left and the piazza opened up before me. Shuttered shops, utter stillness. I could feel the atmosphere as thick with concentrated quiet as a church. And then a voice from nowhere said, “Ciao, Jessica!”
My first thought, before reason returned, was that Virgil knew his stuff – there are moments when the veil separating Gods and mortals is drawn back. Eryx had welcomed me.
I still resist the subsequent explanation that a girl from my tutorial group, arriving early, had found herself a boyfriend (today her husband), and he knew I’d be on the afternoon bus.
I remember nothing of the classes we took. But I can walk every step of that first evening as I headed for the piazza, when a great curl of smoke came tumbling down the roof and wall of the building in front of me, followed by another and another on all sides so that I stopped in concern, and a woman leaning out of a high window called down to me, her voice cracking with laughter, ”E’ la nebbia! It’s the fog!” Although I didn’t understand her, she sounded so happy about it I carried on reassured.
To start with, each evening we would gather in the piazza outside Bar Nzino while the passeggiata, the evening parade of finery, passed by the watery gaze of a dozen old men sitting on plastic chairs outside their social club. Then we wandered to the Balio, scrubby formal gardens that over looked the site of Venus’ temple, now a ruined Norman fortress. There we sat, listless in the heat, and listened to Piero the architecture student play Italian love songs on his guitar, while my Curly Blonde room-mate showed off by knowing all the words.
Away from Curly Blonde I felt more at my ease.
I met Salvatore, more commonly known by one of those nick-names the Italians always use as a sign of ironic respect, in his case Il Ragoniere (the Accountant), who told me folk tales of “Cola Pesce, who swam like a fish and sacrificed himself far beneath the sea to hold up a cracked pillar keeping Sicily afloat”.
I spent an evening being trounced at dominoes by Bruno the dark angel with a duelling scar who was determined to go straight, but was still hailed by cries of “Barone!” when he walked into the bar. I was lionised briefly by shifty Guido, home for the summer to show off a Maserati he had somehow bought on the proceeds of a fish restaurant in Bologna.
I spent an afternoon on the beach with his beautiful, guileless kid brother Aldo who – years later – I heard had died of an overdose while trafficking, which finally explained the Maserati.
One evening up at the Balio, while Curly Blonde was flirting fluently with the boy she knew I liked, I was hit by a sudden revelation. My first act of true independence was formed; I didn’t enjoy her company, and it was up to me to stay or go. I slipped away from the back of the compania, the circle of friends, and headed back towards the bar where I knew I would be welcome.
Under the blue Madonna, some sixth sense made me turn back and peer through the fog. In the diffused light of a street lamp, Piero was hurrying after me. We sat talking in a back room of the bar until the tables were stacked with chairs and they gave us the key to lock up.
Piero took me to a free concert by an Italian rock legend in the main square of Palermo, a summer tradition all over the country. As Lucio Dalla sang his signature bitter-sweet anthem, around us everyone held up their lighters and swayed, and it didn’t feel contrived. After the crowds had gone off to find ice-creams, the streets were littered with soft-drink cans, not a bottle of beer in sight.
Piero lead me round the family-run restaurants of Trapani, feeding me on fish couscous and paper-thin pizza served crisp from the oven onto a table-cloth of grease-proof paper.
Once he refused to tell me what was in store, and drove me way along the coast towards Palermo, to a bar-pasticceria where they made a local speciality called tiramisu.
He showed me the Erice he saw, a palimpsest of cultures left by centuries of conquering powers. As we stood leaning our palms against stone hewn by Carthaginians to build the town walls, he told me in confidence that his family had lost everything during the war. “Who took it?” I asked, scandalised. “I Borboni. The Bourbons,“ he replied solemnly.
On my last day, the fog lay thicker than ever on the ground. Piero took me to the altar of Venus to make a wish. He said that when the fog appears in Erice, it means Venus is reaching out her arms to protect true lovers.
If Hollywood scriptwriters are to be believed, each of us should have a long, golden summer during which we learn to do the lambada, have a defining moment and fall in love for the first time. So maybe my Sicilian summer was a cliché.
I didn’t learn the lambada, but I did start to learn Italian. My defining moment came when I decided to walk away from Curly Blonde’s little game. And I did fall in love under the blue Madonna, twice. Even if one of those loves is now lost, my love for Sicily will always be with me.
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