Conversations on a Sense of Place

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


triangle, trinity

of enduring dust.






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