Posts Tagged ‘sicily’

Listening to iPods on a Train in Sicily

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Stef Puts a Toe In

Slinking along the north coast of Sicily on a train, my sister and I watch the landscape out the windows—blue water on one side and steep, scrub-covered cliffs on the other. In the seats behind us, two American teenage boys are doing their best to woo two mildly disinterested teenage girls, also American. I can only hear one of the boys speaking, his grownup voice booming through the half-empty train, right behind my head. He pretends to know about European history.

The station at Taormina wooshes past and I feel a pang of regret. It would be good so good to get off the train, to spend another day in the sun before shacking up with our relatives. Before days of my impossible, badly-accented Sicilian and host/guest protocol that we barely understand.

We’re half-asleep from our early-morning plane ride, from lulling woosh of the train, from the heady sense of not being anywhere yet. We listen to music, our ears stopped up, to forget where we are or always remember, one or the other. Nothing blocks out all the noise, though.

I ask my sister, “What are you listening to?”

“R. Kelly, ‘Ignition Remix.’ You?”

“’You Dropped the Bomb on Me.”

Stromboli: What Erupted

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010


The island of Stromboli looks like a volcano in a cartoon, in a movie where people get stuck on a tropical island. It springs up out of the blue Aeolian Sea like a perfect jutting triangle, the bottom two-thirds covered in a sheath of rippling grass and brush, like Shar-Pei wearing a green sweater. The top is dark with the rock of new eruptions, a plume of brown and white smoke coughing steadily from the crater.

We approach it in an excursion boat called Paloma that hits the top of each wave with a loud thunk. In an irrational gesture that will neither stop me from getting hurt in case of an accident, or getting seasick, I grip the edge of a wooden table, my knuckles white with desperation.

We have just come from the island of Panarea, a sloping slab of white rock with a single, tiny, exclusive town full of white stucco houses with neon blue shutters and doors, and 4-Euro granita in the port. We’re looking forward to something a little more low-key on Stromboli. If we get there alive.

No one else on the boat seems bothered by the choppy waves, especially not the ship’s staff—the handsome, salt-and-pepper-haired captain or its first mate, a genial old guy who keeps making the rounds, asking if we’re all OK. I lie every time, partly because when it comes to me and seasickness, admitting there is a problem almost assuredly creates a problem, and partly because I have no idea what he’d do if I told the truth, and I have no desire to find out. The third member of the ship’s crew, a teenage boy in a pair of aviator sunglasses, is mostly busy hauling ropes and flirting with my sister. Every time we reach a port, he makes a point of telling her and only her the return time in broken English.


Strombolito With Its Tiny Lighthouse

Rambling Stromboli town is bright in the sinking sun and full of tourists returning from a day of trekking to the crater. Walking away from the port, we find a restaurant with a terrace and order a heap of antipasto—grilled eggplant, olives, and artichoke hearts—and a half-carafe of white wine. We eat and take photos of the incredible view—a stripe of blue water broken only by a little rock of an island in the distance, the lighthouse just barely visible on the top.

The little offshore island is called Strobolito—literally, Little Stromboli—and it really is nothing more than a jutting rock with a lighthouse on top and a single zigzagging staircase leading up to it from the ocean below. It looks solitary and scary and a little sad at sunset, its sides brilliant with iron ore. On the way to Stromoboli, Paloma got close to it, but the ocean felt so rough that I thought we’d be thrust into its craggy sides.

Everyone who enters the terrace does the exact same thing—eats, snaps photos, marvels. Wonders how reality will feel afterwards, whether their eyes will adjust.


Stef Wanders

On the obsidian beach near the port, I cannot stop touching the sand. It sits in the palms of my hands like piles of silky caviar, sticks like a swarm of insects. The smoke from the crater drifts directly above our heads, a white stripe through the sky.

My sister goes swimming and everyone on the beach stares as though she’s sprung a third arm. The water is freezing in the late-afternoon shadow. The vacationers on their yachts and schooners have wrapped up in jackets and shawls. Only the occasional squall of a gull, or the shout of a wriggling kid breaks the silence.

Paloma is scheduled to return for us in a few minutes, and I savor the still ground under my body, knowing it won’t last. Our footprints in the black sand look like fossils, like nothing could shift them out of shape. When we trudge back up to the dock, I take half the beach with me in my shoes. I need to sift and shake three times to get it out, or maybe just for luck.


Paloma sweeps past Stromboli’s flat seaward side, the side that erupts.

A smooth sheet of hardened lava, the chute of so many eruptions, begins at the lip and cascades all the way to the churning sea below. The sun is just about to dip below the horizon, to give the Stromboli by Night tour its name. The captain explains that the eruption from just a few years ago lasted for months, that it created the long lava flow we’re seeing now. And all the while, the boat rocks.

“If you wait,” he says, “You may just see the eruption happening before your eyes.”

We wait. Beside me, a man with a video camera keeps rolling. I try to imagine who would want to watch this video back on dry land, the camera shuddering with the motion of the ship. The boat rolls too, first front to back and then side to side as we make a lazy spin into the waves.

All of my photos are on strange, sloping angles, as though I can’t properly feel the floor.

We crane our necks around like people watching a tennis match, focused on the dim smoking mouth. We circle and circle.

At one point, the captain calls our attention to two distinct colors of smoke pouring toward the sky in separate plumes at the same time—one a milky gray and one a filthy brown. That’s when it happens—a crimson fountain of lava bubbles up in a long, sparkling spout. In the same instant, the boat hits a massive wave and careens forward, tossing half of us off our seats. Everyone on the boat collects themselves and cheers, as the first mate shouts at the top of his lungs in Italian, fists raised, “It’s erupting! Oh my God! Stromboli by night! Stromboli by night!”

That he has probably seen this every single night since he took this job seems irrelevant. It seems likewise beside the point that Paloma’s rocking has reached a nerve-rattling extreme, that people are tumbling over themselves, craning their necks and spinning around backwards to see the volcano, which, by now, has ceased in its pyrotechnics.

As the sun slides lower behind the horizon, the boat continues to turn, and my stomach remains lodged somewhere against the inside of my ribcage. We wait for it to happen again. We wait for an hour, the boat bobbing all the while.

It is dark when the captain decides that we should be on our way, that we’ve seen enough of Stromboli and her treacherous dark water and bright plume. The people on the boat groan in collective disappointment.


Facing backwards on one of Paloma’s rear seats, I focus on Stromboli’s shadow in the distance, a ghostly blue-black monster breaking the line of the horizon. It is the only thing to do to keep from getting sick.

As it shrinks away from us, I feel as though I’m falling into a kind of trance. Or perhaps my sister and I are just reluctant to look away, or to speak, out of fear of what might happen.

The captain has turned on Paloma’s interior lights, and their reflection bounces between the windows. We remind each other to look past them at the objects in the distance, at things that are fixed and anchored to land. Others on the boat, apparently, do not share a similar strategy.

Because halfway back to dry land, the woman sitting behind us starts to vomit. The first mate and his assistant—the aviator-wearing teenage boy—leap into action. Stores of plastic bags are hidden all over the boat—under the seats, in the panels along the ceiling. They hand one to her, along with a fat lemon wedge that materializes out of nowhere. The woman hangs her head in misery—the only hint that anything is amiss, along with the wafting smell of lemon.

Then, a second sound arises from the other side of the boat—another woman is vomiting, hunched over herself. An instant later, the man sitting beside her starts to do the same, and is followed by no fewer than three other people. The first mate and the teenage boy move between them as though nothing were amiss, handing out lemon wedges and bags and rubbing backs.

My sister flashes a tight smile. “Everyone on this boat is throwing up right now.”

“Let’s not talk about it, please,” I say, fixating on the island in the distance.


By the time Lipari, our home port, comes back into focus, everyone is weary and slumped over and silent.

On the pier, my jelly knees quake. We walk carefully back to our hotel under the street lamps, queasy and in a haze. I mention that it was good to see the volcano erupting, even if we had to wait, had to turn around in circles for an hour to see it.

“I mean, look on the bright side,” my sister says. “I took a tortuga tour in Costa Rica. And the thing with that tour is that eighty percent of the time, they don’t see a single tortuga.”

Go there:
The island of Stromboli can be reached directly by ferry from the town of Milazzo in Sicily. Tickets for the Stromboli by Night island tour, which includes stops in Panarea and Stromboli, can be purchased in the main port towns throughout the Aeolian Islands.

Palermo III: The Dead City

Monday, July 19th, 2010

There is Graffiti on Everything

There is no real bus stop, but the driver recognizes that we’re tourists and drops us off in the right place. 
Walking up the hill toward it, we question why we’re doing this in the first place. If it’s going to be creepy. If it’s going to gross us out.
“Well,” I say. “We can’t go to Palermo and not see the place with the dead people.”
Somehow, this works as an explanation.
The outside of the Capuchin catacombs looks like a grimy post office—a low, peaked building with pock-marked pillars set alongside a parking lot. A souvenir stand bakes in the sun beside it, offering gondolier hats and models of Sicilian donkey carts. All these years, I had imagined a grand church or at least a pretty chapel.
After paying the 3-Euro entry and descending the stairs, it starts right away. They’re hanging on the walls, each body nestled into a neat plaster relief, wearing a horror-movie-ready, gravity-dragged grimace, and fully, and in many cases artfully clothed. Some appear to have been stuffed with straw from the neck down so that the clothes don’t sag in unsightly ways or fall off the bodies entirely.
Most are cue ball skeletons, even the women, but some bear traces of flesh—a fully-formed ear peeled away from a skull, a tuft of dark hair thrown over a shoulder, the prickly remnants of a beard. Many of the women, instead of hanging on the wall, lie in glass-sided coffins wearing their finest—pretty green linens and silk wedding dresses, all of which are more intact than their bodies.
I cough in the dry air.
“You’re breathing in dead people,” says my sister.
She’s right. The crypt is spotless, but dry with the dust of crumbling fabric and paper and bones, everything that goes straight back into the earth.
A wall set aside for children—their bodies so tiny in lace and cotton baby clothes—is more sad and sobering than terrifying, each one a memorial to unfathomable individual loss. In another inset off to the side, a stiff skeletal hand reaches forward from a woman’s body, and seems to beckon visitors as though she were a plastic skeleton you could buy at Walmart, the guardian of a haunted house. She is so small in death, so lumpy and hollow.
Toward the end, in her own decorated alcove, is the famous little girl in her cradle. She was two when she died in the early 1800s, and her father knew an embalming technique that kept her body preserved and made her the object of veneration. She looks not-quite real, like a wax doll.
At the end of the tour, you can buy a postcard with her face on it, and others with photos of the bodies.
“Can you imagine sending one of those?” asks my sister. “What do you write on it? ‘Wish you were here?’”

Go there: Palermo’s Capuchin crypt is located at Via Cappuccini, 1. To get there, take the bus from the Piazza Indipendenza and ask the driver to let you off at the crypt. Because he won’t otherwise.

Palermo II: The City Below

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

The Goddess Looks Away

In a city with almost no working street lights, where filthy dogs lie in the sun on their bloated, wormy sides, we go in search of something—a park to eat our lunches. We never find it.

How this happens in a city planned out on four deliberate quadrants, the main streets dividing them as though they’d been hacked apart with a knife, we have no idea. But we manage it anyway, even with a map and a compass. The map only names half the streets. The compass somehow gets scrambled. We realize these things all at once, and it feels as though Palermo is conspiring to bamboozle us, using the smells of rotting fish and car exhaust as aides.

We walk South with assurance, only to realize half an hour later that we’ve actually been walking West, and well beyond the boundaries of the old city. We adjust our itinerary and try to go North, abandoning the idea of the park, hoping to at least get to a place that exists on our map. We do, but we head East without knowing it and end up in the place we started, a square bookended by two enormous dry fountains, the mouths of the stone heads spouting nothing but air, the basins below filled with bags of garbage.

Starving and having given up on the park, we sit on the steps in front of another dry fountain that’s surrounded by a 6-foot iron fence. The statues—the whole pantheon of gods—watch as we unwrap our sandwiches and green olives. I lean back against a hooded stone lion, his tail curved neatly around his flank. Someone has spray painted something across his hip.

The scooters and cars rush by, the drivers swinging their heads around as though we are the attraction, the only thing around worth seeing.

Go there: The piazza where we stopped to eat, with its dry baroque fountain, is the Piazza Pretoria. It’s right near the Quattro Canti, Palermo’s geographical center.

The Sweet Stuff: Granita from Sicily to NYC

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Almond Granita at Grom

When I visited my family in Sicily last spring, I ate almost continuously for a week. In those six days, I forgot what it felt like to be hungry. This, I suppose, is the point of going to Sicily. I remember every meal I had there in almost freakish detail—a chive tied around a hard-boiled egg, the tiny, edible spines of fried sardines. At one point, my Uncle Turi said to me between bites of a pizza topped with artichoke hearts and prosciutto, “You realize, of course, that the best food in the world is in Italy and the best food in Italy is in Sicily.”

You know what? He was completely right. Of all the amazing meals I ate in every corner of Italy—and there were dozens of them, trust me—none were quite like the food in Sicily. None were so packed with flavor or so effortlessly and elegantly prepared, and this was both in restaurants and at home. They sent me back to Paris a solid five pounds heavier and I hardly cared. I refused nothing.

But my single favorite food in Sicily wasn’t something that was prepared at home. I had it at my cousin Graziella’s house, sitting at the kitchen table with her children, my cousins Gieuseppina, Rosetta, and Gieuseppe. In the morning, her husband got us a hugely special treat for breakfast—granita. I’d had granita lots of times growing up, starting with the homemade version my great-grandmother mixed in a baking pan in her freezer. There was also, at one point, an old Italian guy in a dingy convenience store in Lawrence, Massachusetts who sold it, too. I remember that granita, and it was good, but it was not quite the real thing. It was more like what Americans would call slush—more icy than not, and very sweet. My grandmother always said—still says—”It’s better in Sicily.” But then, she says this about everything. The granita that my cousin brought us that morning in Sicily was maybe the best sweet treat I’ve ever had. And for a girl who loves her macarons and her ricotta cannoli and fat slabs of New York City cheesecake, this is saying something.

It came in a styrofoam cup with a lid and with a brioche, a sweet bun that’s glazed and a bit sticky on the outside, and very soft on the inside. You’re technically supposed to put the granita on the brioche to eat it, but I think I had some coordination problems at that early hour and just sort of ate the two of them as time and space would allow. The granita itself was a beautiful balance of icy and creamy—and not too sweet. My favorite granita flavor—on both sides of the Atlantic, regardless of quality or authenticity—is almond. It’s the kind I always got as a kid. It’s the kind my great-grandmother made. It’s the flavor I requested in Sicily. For me, it’s almond or bust.

You can imagine how happy I was to find out that I can actually get granita—and a pretty good one at that—in New York City. It’s not perfect like the granita in Sicily, but it eases my cravings for not just the food itself, but for the comfort of having my family close, the lazy, sun-dappled beauty of that island. It’s at Grom, the amazing-and-jaw-droppingly-but-justifiably-expensive Florentine gelato parlor that set up in New York a few years ago. And again, it’s not perfect. The almonds are not as finely ground, so it’s a bit gritty, and it doesn’t have that blissful smoothness. But it’s flavor, its perfect sweetness—is so close. It’s close enough that I can drop in on a Saturday, drop my $6 on the counter, and be transported back, just for a minute, to that table with my family, the place where my heart lives.

Go there:

You can find Grom in major cities all over the world, including two locations in New York City and the original in Florence, Italy. I’ve been to all three of those. The granita costs about $6 and comes in almond, lemon, and coffee. The granita I had with my cousins was purchased somewhere in Biancavilla, Sicily. If you visit, I’m sure you could just ask someone for good granita and they’ll tell you. That is, if you can find anyone in Biancavilla who speaks English. Which you probably can’t.

The Ancients

Friday, April 10th, 2009


Anna Maria and I walk across the Villa of Adrano under a bleachy white sky and a canopy of palm trees. It is before dinner and I’m hugging my shawl around me like a hunched-over widow. We don’t speak much. I don’t have much to say.

My cousin is a little stooped and pouchy around the middle and her glasses make her eyes look bigger and fishier than they are. Her clothes—clingy t-shirts, quilted coats—make it difficult to tell how old she actually is but she projects the air of a disaffected, chain-smoking soccer mom. Such things aren’t spoken of, but in hanging out with her, I get the distinct sense that she is condemned now to old maidenhood or maybe just to oldness. The bitterness of it has turned her words vinegary and short. In a week, I don’t recall ever seeing her smile.

Before I leave that tiny island, I will see her shout, lecture, swear, scold, and cry in wracking sobs like a little girl, tears rolling down her face. I never sort out whether she likes me or not. But she takes care of me. Unlike my Aunt Maria, she has a car and friends under 75, and she shows up, every single day, unsmiling and brisk, for an outing.

One afternoon, it is Adrano. It’s never totally clear what we’re going there to see because Anna Maria speaks more Italian than Sicilian, which I have trouble following. In the car, she asks me a question and I make a decent guess at an answer. She falls silent and then bursts out in her big, half-angry laugh and speaks to a third person who isn’t there.

“Jesus Christ, this girl doesn’t understand me.”

She tries another way of saying it and I still don’t understand. She taps her fingers on the steering wheel, trying to think of the word in Sicilian but she can’t.

“You know, Anna,” I say, finally, fishing for whatever words I know. The rickety old language. “In Italian, I’m kind of stupid.”

“No!” she says, feigning politeness.

“But in English, I’m pretty smart, I swear.”

Her laughter dissolves into a wheezy smoker’s cough.

In Adrano, she walks with me past the baroque town hall, glancing up at the sky and frowning as though she could frighten the clouds away with a glance. Fat stone cherubs cavort over the doors. Explosions of carved fruit and leaves grace the doors. I am exhausted from speaking Sicilian, my poor brain frazzled and clicking like an old computer, working hard for every word. So I stay silent.

I still have no idea what we’ve come here to see. She tries to explain but I just shake my head.

“Fine,” she says. “Just walk. I’ll show you.”

At the edge of the park, she points.


It is a castle. Right in the center of town. An enormous fortification—a single tower up on a high platform.

“What is it?” I ask as though I’ll be able to understand the answer.

“Ruins,” she says. Just like that. And I want to ask a million questions. What kind of ruins? Who left this here? But I know she doesn’t know and I know I wouldn’t be able to understand if she did, so I do the only thing I know to do. I reach into my bag and draw out my camera. I take a photo.

A year later, I will see an almost identical photo on Wikipedia in the entry about the Normans, the part about their incredible conquests in Sicily. The greatest rulers the island ever knew, according to some. The Normans! With their weird language that must have seemed so odd. They brought castles. They brought blue eyes. They left their stones behind.

We make a circle around the ruin and see some other things near the Villa. A tiny church that’s painted in music box colors. A stretch of green and ocher buildings, their facades perfect and crumbling and beaten down by the sun, the sulfur in the sky. A stretch of jewelry stores all in a row down one street.

When I was a baby, my grandmother made a visit back to Sicily and came home with a gold necklace for me in a tiny box, a Madonna in painted enamel on the medallion. I wasn’t allowed to wear it until I’d graduated from college. The box still bears the inscription of a jewelry store in Adrano. Maybe the one I stood outside of that day. Maybe one that stood on that spot.

Then there were the old men. On our way back to the car, we pass them. In chairs, wearing their hats. All in a circle. It is that hour of the day when old men in Sicily sit and talk and talk and sit. Wearing their best clothes. In that between-time around the edges of siesta. And they look, their heads all following in unison as though I am a tennis ball. They look as though I am an alien, newly coughed up from a gleaming space ship. As though I have sprouted a tail, an unruly tentacle. They grow silent as Anna Maria and I approach and she pays them no heed but I switch, manic, between cool disinterest and gaping fascination.

How do they know? I am wearing a red cotton skirt and a pair of sandals. The shawl renders me modest but I would have been anyway, shoulders under a t-shirt. It cannot be the clothes because other women are out and about. They look like me. They’re wearing less, in fact. It’s something else and I can’t see it and I don’t have enough words to ask about it. But I wonder what it is, this thing that makes me American.

Meanwhile Back at the Castle

Thursday, April 9th, 2009


This is the Castello Normanno in Adrano, Sicily. My cousin Anna Maria took me there on an overcast spring day when I didn’t have a whole lot to say, or maybe I was so exhausted from speaking Sicilian—from reaching so far back into my memory bank—that I just didn’t have any words left.

When I first saw the castle, I had no idea what it was and Anna Maria tried to explain but I couldn’t understand. (She is of the younger generation of my cousins that went to school and speaks more Italian than Sicilian, which I can only half-follow.) There are so many ruins in Sicily. In the middle of downtown. In the middle of fields. And the Roman and Greek ruins are spectacular, to be sure, but there’s something about the Norman ruins, like this one, that were particularly haunting and beautiful to me. Maybe because they seem so out of place amidst the palm trees and enormous pink flowers. A million miles away from home. Which of course makes no sense because Sicily was home to the Normans. Well, these Normans anyway.

I’ll write about that day with Anna Maria, the whole history of the thing. How my cousin Angela lives in Adrano but we couldn’t go see her because she was fighting with my Aunt Maria. How Anna Maria walked me down the main street with all the jewelry shops selling mountains of Italian gold. How all the old men in the square watched me pass as though I was an alien. Someday. When it’s ready to be written.

Coffee and Cookies

Thursday, February 12th, 2009


Every single morning, Maria makes me coffee. I wake up with the sun, the beams of it streaming through and illuminating her dark, angular little house, the whole thing done up in dark greens and gold and tile—the colors of the landscape, the stringy weeds poking through the railroad tracks just up the street. I let myself sleep in.

On the first night, she offers me her spotless bedroom with its heavy bed—old as a century—and I can tell by the way she holds her hand out, the shortness of the words, that she doesn’t want me to accept so I don’t. I sleep in the living room on a kind of wide couch on a bolster pillow, on afghans that look and feel and smell exactly like the ones my grandmother crocheted for the couches in her own railroad apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts. When my eyes open, every single time, I am confused and disoriented, remembering sleepovers of decades past in my grandparents’ living room, the couch cushions on my face.

Maria’s hoarse, early-morning voice is so like my grandfather’s when she says, “Ou, Laura,” scratching the side of her head. She hasn’t put in her teeth yet, smoothed her hair, but I know the sound of what she’s saying, what’s expected of me. Get your ass out of bed, in so many words. And she makes me coffee.

She makes it on the stove in her silver coffee pot that’s identical to my grandmother’s silver coffee pot. Americans would call it an espresso pot or a moka pot, but to Italians, there is no other kind of coffee pot, no other word or qualifier for what comes out of it. She watches it and waits, sometimes talking, sometimes just watching.

“The doctor,” she says holding up a small box, “He gave me this stuff for my face that burned and turned me all red. See? It’s junk. All of it. Doctors are all crooks.”

She will not start making it until I’m seated, until I’m facing the edge of the table, hovering over the blue cotton table cloth. She lays out a cup and a saucer, a spoon, a cloth napkin, a dish of cookies, a sugar bowl. One morning I was sleepy slow-moving and sad, thinking too much about my family, and I said, “Zia, go ahead and start it. I’m coming.” She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t start it.

Usually, she pours the milk first, exactly enough and from the little porcelain creamer—never directly out of the bottle. She made me coffee six times on six sunny mornings and I never once saw the bottle. Other times she pours it at the same time as the coffee in two long streams without spilling a drop, a little showoffy. Only once, on the morning I leave, does she pour the coffee first and I can tell she’s in an awful mood, stomping and clanging things around the kitchen, the coffee pot hitting the burner with a clank.

It is useless to tell her that I don’t really drink coffee, that it makes me jittery and disturbs my sleep. There is nothing else for me to have, no other kind of breakfast on this island. On this continent. And then I take a sip and fall in love. It is the best coffee I’ve ever had, whole-meal worthy, smooth and soothing and warm.

In six days, I eat 35 cookies. I don’t even care. I’m in Sicily and I’m starved. Starved . After months in chilly Paris without family and with few friends, months of salads, of French moderation, I want cookies. I want mountains of cookies. And maybe that’s why I eat 35 and maybe it’s because they are the taste of morning at my Nanna’s house all the way across an ocean.

Because you have to understand. When my family emigrated, they took everything with them. They took their language and their jittery nerves and their taste for gold couches and their cookies. They are the same cookies in Sicily that I ate every day at my grandmother’s house in America.

Once, I found a box of them in a shop in New York and ate the whole thing, every single cookie, in a night. I called my mother and she laughed into the phone. “I used to give you those when you were teething.”

This is my Sicily, every minute of it. It is like remembering something so old and specific, something that comes from a time before speech, before real thought. And all I can really remember is the taste.

I leave two in the bowl and Maria frowns. “Just eat them.”

Zia, I can’t. I’m full. I ate so many.”

“What’s your problem? Eat them. Mangia. You’re too skinny anyway.”

I finish them. Because in that instant, before it fades and goes off somewhere, returns to the back of my brain, to some other part of the universe, I can chew and swallow and remember.

Part 1: My Father’s Country

Sunday, February 1st, 2009


In the airport in Rome, I fidget. I kick a plastic bottle of Pellegrino out of a vending machine. I switch seats once. Twice.

Watch an airplane long enough—even one that’s tethered to its gate, its belly opened by baggage handlers and fed by fuel tubes—and it becomes animate, picks up its head . You expect its wings to flap, its nose to bend forward, to scratch at a big-wheeled claw with its beak. I sit by the windows at the gate as the fan blades spin at their lazy, earthbound pace.

The women who congregate, their husbands in suit jackets, seem like family—dark and round around the middle, big sunglasses, tiny gold shoes, the Virgin around their necks. Everyone looks like a soccer goalie or like my uncle.

When I was a kid, I watched my Dad’s sister Anna try on tiny scraps of fabric—a pile of minidresses—in a mall fitting room. She snapped the elastic and said, “If I don’t work out, I’ll look like my mother.” When I asked her what that meant, she said, “Like a little Italian potato.”

I have no idea who will pick me up in Catania. I have seen photos—yellowed, decades-old Polaroids—but I can’t remember names. They have never seen any of me. And maybe there will be no one. Maybe I will be left to wander, to haggle taxi fare, to use whatever scraps of language I have left. Maybe it will be a long wait in the greeting area that sorts out to a few hours of embarrassment and nothing more.

On the flight, the low-altitude cascade along the boot of green-black Italy, I practice every useful-seeming Sicilian phrase I can think of, reciting them in my head.

My name is Laura. I come from New York. I’m hungry. Where’s the bathroom? Please. Thank you. I only speak a little. I don’t understand. I am the daughter of Carmelo, granddaughter of Placido and Maria, great-granddaughter of…

Sicily comes into focus all at once, a pointed little island of yellow sand and rolling hills. I trace the dirt roads with my eyes, watch them wind in through miniature villages, vineyards, olive groves. And then the volcano appears behind it all, so enormous that I mistake its hazy gray sides at first for a swath of sky. Smoke belches from the snow-capped lip in a long, tumbling cloud.

All my life, we had rocks in the house. On the mantel and on night stands, lumpy black hunks that shattered to grainy bits if you dropped them on the floor. They were paperweights or good luck charms or just decoration—pieces of the mountain, a reminder of the landscape that was. And they all told stories of the eruptions, my grandparents and my father, how you could watch the mouth glow red after sundown.

They lived in a town on the southwestern summit, far enough away from the crater to guarantee safety but close enough for spectacular views , those incredible displays of nighttime pyrotechnics.

So, I’ll see the village, then. The other part of my father’s life, a whole family I’ve never seen, the part of us that didn’t splinter apart. If anyone comes to get me.

Over the phone, my father tells me, “Laura, you should carry a sign so they can find you.”

“Papa,” I tell him, “That’s sort of dangerous. Then anyone could claim to know me and pick me up. They need to have the sign.”

“Oh,” he says, not having considered this. “Well, alright.”

I assume, knowing my family, that this message has not made it across the Atlantic in time for my arrival and that I will be searching the faces of strangers for… what? I’m not even sure.

On the ground in the chrome-and-glass terminal, I walk into the greeting area. Families wait. Children shout. I watch faces, meet eyes. They stare back, blank, a little insulted. Then I see a crop of faces, all of them huddled together in a little patch as though they are terrified to take up too much space, to risk letting go of each other’s hands and elbows. Two older men and a beaming little girl, but it is the woman who stops my roving eyes, and for an instant, my heart. Her dark suit and nylons are offset by gold earrings, a silk scarf at her neck. The line of her mouth is set in a straight line of unmistakable disapproval—a look so familiar that it takes the air out of my lungs. She looks so much like my grandfather—not at the end, but when he was well—that I blink back tears. Her eyes don’t change, but she puts a hand up, extends a single finger.

I am claimed.

There Is No Internet in Sicily

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

I couldn’t figure out how to write it and at least now I know why. There was nothing to write until I came here.

Hold on. I’m almost home.