Conversations on a Sense of Place
I have loved Italy since I first set foot on its soil at the age of twenty, in the mid-sixties, and that love affair has influenced everything since. Heading off to southern France to study, I thought it would be fun to pick up another European language, and I found an intensive course in Italian in the Vanderbilt schedule. Grammar and conversation first semester, Dante second semester. The language was my introduction and the first way to love a place and a culture. I’d already experienced it with French, and this was true of Italian as well. Then, once immersed in the heady experience of living and studying in Aix-en-Provence, I nevertheless could hardly wait for a break from classes that would allow me to jump on a train to Florence. Ah, Firenze, and youth, of course. I was hooked on the energy of the Renaissance, ready to be impressed and indeed filled to the brim with more art and scenic beauty than I could have imagined. My friends and I walked everywhere and I felt I possessed a part of that city, if only the dust on my weary feet. I returned to that Duomo, that Arno, that Ponte Vecchio, that Pensione Silla, that David, that Signoria, that Piazzale Michelangelo as often as possible, and I spent spring break in Rome and went south to Napoli and Pompei. But Florence, Firenze, was my mother. There I met university students, went to dinners and dances, dined most evenings at a Trattoria I’ve forgotten the name of, but not the family, not the little girl Caterina who did her homework at our table sometimes, not the welcome I felt there, and not the stony texture of buildings I ran my hands over as I walked its streets. I practiced my Italian and began to feel comfortable in its lovely twists and turns of vowels and syntax. This was just a beginning. Many years and adventures later, studying, as an adult, for two years in Bergamo, traveling to its jeweled coasts and hill towns, marrying one of its citizens and thereby gaining a lovely extended family whom I still call close friends, hiking in the Gran Paradiso, returning when opportunity has arisen.
But Sicily? A friend and I went to Sicily last May on Peggy Markel’s cooking tour. More about the cooking and the good experiences of the tour later. I had never been to Sicily before and was thrilled with the prospect. I had a good time. But Sicily didn’t get into my skin, and its failure to do so kept me puzzled. Here’s a reflection that tries to get at why.
(The day after writing this, August 28, I happened across the article in the New York Times travel section on the subject of why Sicily isn’t really Italy—and why the region around Mt. Etna isn’t really Sicily! Serendipity. Sicily and its long and varied history belongs only to Sicilians. They don’t lend it out to trespassers like me, although they are open, happy to see you, and love to chat. The ancient land holds its secrets. Maybe it’s that we can appreciate, but never know.)
Some places we cannot dig a spade in
This time I find myself off-balance,
positioned on an island
lying in the Mediterranean
as though kicked off the boot of Italy.
The soil is worn out with years
of other boots, too, kicking through
the forests and dodging its fires,
working the life out of the poor
who have by now mined it dry.
Sicily lies between two seas
and would give forever
to wanderers like me
a lush land, rolling with green
and pushing up olives and grapes
with festivals and the grace
of saints. Enormous rock outcrops
rise out of the earth near Palermo
like ancient gods turned to stone.
Upheaval is its history, and I look
to find that I am no part of its tale.
In the markets vendors scream
as though artichokes and fish
were marauders with scimitars
or French or Spanish ships
once again. It is tradition.
To outdo competitors
it is said you must be loudest,
must move the uncertain to decide
life or death. But on this triangle
of land no more ships will come
to conquer, only tourists
who wish to wear its masks,
get its ancient heart in their skin,
It’s what I love about going out.
It’s the trying-on of culture.
But here, it would take centuries
to finger through the threads
that bind these lives. Suffice
the student, suffice the observer.
Energy rises like spring
and the central hills wear green grass
and red vetch and sula, poppies burst
open their bodies for a joyful moment
and we find an industry of growing,
Etna’s mountainside, rich with the residue
of its deadly fires, yields vines, groves.
We wanderers come to cook, to shop,
to speak a pretty language and drink
something pure and old.
We can but taste a surface,
what we are allowed
in gracious smiles, a lilt
of intimacy. They say the drought
will kill the vineyards soon,
and we wonder if we are the last
to taste this wine, these odd-formed
squashes, to see the village rituals
that endow tough men
with a brand of faith that will not
look askance at old women
who make the cassata, paint
the ancient wood of icons, who
cook the pastries of myth
that has bound them, centuries,
in God’s land, and we strangers thrill
to the illogic of it all.
The beautiful illogic
as the wine sails abroad
and the olive oil and the life-blood.
We buy symbolic marzipans and lace
we would never buy at home
perhaps in some found faith
that we participate
in a kind of resurrection
as indeed we do,
unknowing this unknowable
of enduring dust.