by Musetta Joyce © 2013
Haunted by memories of crowded beaches, frantic traffic, tempers frayed by the heat, merciless sirocco winds, frequent forest fires needing helicopters and small planes to scoop giant bucketfuls of seawater to quench, late night discos thumping their deafening boom boom till dawn every weekend, I have avoided July and August in Sicily for years.
But, in 2013, I decide to risk it, as we are expecting family guests; besides, we have now moved half way up a mountain with air conditioning installed at last, and 13 is my lucky number.
The days begin with the sunlight gleaming through the shutters casting a golden glow that makes it impossible to linger on in bed. From the kitchen comes the clatter of pots and plates for my husband loves washing up first thing every morning. We breakfast on the veranda in the shade and eat whatever fruit is in season: big juicy dark cherries, rosy apricots and peaches of all shapes and sizes. The oranges season is over, but pear, lemon and fig trees flourish in the garden; there's nothing quite like savouring freshly picked figs.
Our house faces north, and when the sun climbs high enough to allow shade at the front, I bring whatever vegetables I'm using for lunch to prepare on the veranda. Peas or beans to be shelled, tomatoes to be skinned, aubergines to be sliced and two-metre-long zucchini, that climb like green snakes all over the trees, with thick skins that have to be peeled.
Next we're off to the shops. Himself loves shopping even more than washing up, and insists on going to different shops for various foods, comparing prices and driving far to find bargains. Many of the small botteghe along the main street have closed with the mushrooming of the big supermarkets which have the advantage of providing lovely cool air conditioning as a welcome relief from the heat as the temperature rises over 30 degrees and cars become ovens after a few minutes parked under the scorching sun. Two supermarkets have opened in the old valve factory, which has been divided up and sold off in sections. The boardroom where I used to teach is an empty space, now for sale once more, and beside it there is a striptease nightclub where my husband used to design valves. One of the supermarkets sells all their fruit and vegetables for 99 cent a kilo, no matter what kind, while the other has great cheese and fresh fish. We make our own bread with the lovely local yellow semolina flour, get wine on tap from a local organic winery and have plenty of herbs and tomatoes in the garden, so with luck the shopping shouldn't take long and we can go for a swim.
Our nearest beach is mostly shingle and coarse grey sand. It's never crowded even in high summer and the sea is transparent and really warm by now – and often stays warm until November, though the locals rarely swim after the end of August. Now they are busy draping themselves on beach-towels clad in mini bikinis, turning every now and then to invite the sun god to kiss every visible part of their already bronzed skin, basting their bodies frequently with strongly scented coconut oils. Almost nobody reads and the ombrelloni are used to keep any food and drinks cool. Many of the women never learn to swim, and content themselves with splashing about on the edge. The sea is hardly ever rough and I love to swim far out for an hour at least, but this year, during my very first swim a jellyfish stings me. The sting should be treated immediately, but it is half an hour before himself, who has gone to do more shopping, comes to take me to the nearest chemist and by then it has become a nasty stinging welt across my thigh. Yes, I know that urine would have done the trick, but try peeing on your upper thigh in a public place. Anyway, it spoils my joy in swimming for the rest of the summer, and I go only when himself swims underwater nearby with goggles to warn me of any sightings of the enemy jellyfish. Sometimes we drive farther along the coast and climb down a steep path to a small beach where there are hot springs under the water. The mountains here are full of sulphur and when a tunnel was being opened for the motorway, the fumes killed some of the men doing the blasting, and as you drive through this tunnel you can still smell the stink of rotten eggs.
In August the temperature usually climbs towards 40 degrees, but this year it doesn't. In fact, during the first few days of the hottest month it starts to rain, an event almost unheard of at this time of year. It hasn't rained for several months and the ground is bone dry so the rain bounces off the surface.
One evening at the beginning of August, as we drive home I notice an ominous black cloud hovering over the mountain where we live. We planned to go home and then come out again to an open-air concert, but I begin to have doubts about the wisdom of this.
'It must be lashing already and the road will be drenched. We'd better go straight home and stay there!'
'And miss Nino D'Angelo? No, no, let's not bother going home. We can just go and have a pizza until it's time for the concert.'
'I'd rather have a pizza at home. We have a couple in the freezer.'
'It's not like you to be such a pessimist. Don't be silly!'
Suddenly the clouds burst and a deluge of water falls all around us.
'Come on, let's go home before it gets any worse.' I insist.
We turn off the nazionale Messina-Palermo road and start to drive up the winding narrow laneway flanked by rocks and clumps of sandstone on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other. The rain is already a small torrent sweeping towards us. I imagine us being swept over the edge onto the valley below while himself visualizes banks of mud forcing us off the roadway, which is rapidly turning into an angry river.
'There could be a landslide any minute!' he mutters. 'It often happens after a long dry spell.'
The fifteen minutes it takes us to reach our home, in first gear, seems like hours. From our veranda we can see that the town below is silent; the concert called off. We heat our frozen pizzas, giddy with gratitude for our safe arrival home. And we were not exaggerating, for next day's newspapers show photographs of a couple in a similar situation a little farther along the coast who had a miraculous escape when their car precipitated over the side of the road and ended upside down in the valley below. There but for the grace of God …
Practically every town and village in Sicily has a patron saint or some version of the Madonna to honour, and most of their annual celebratory feste occur in summertime. These always involve the hiring of special electric illumination for the streets where the statue is carried on a wooden varetta in a procession led by a band playing traditional music. The main streets are lined with stalls selling all sorts of goods: candied nuts and special sweets, popular cds and colourful books, tools, handbags, ornaments and household gadgets as well as hot fast-foods. People line the streets when the procession passes and pin money to the saint's cloak in gratitude for prayers answered. People of all ages stroll up and down, often with tiny babies, waiting for the grand finale which has to be fireworks, usually at midnight, but once dusk descends sample blasts shoot coloured stars at intervals, terrifying thousands of screeching birds who flee from their nests in the pinewoods along the promenade.
At the beginning of August our nearest festa takes place higher up our mountain in the village of Sorrentini whose special saint is San Teodoro, the 'dancing saint' originally from Asia Minor, reputed to have been burned on a pyre when he refused to renounce the Christian faith. The village men run through the narrow streets with his statue, bouncing it up and down, to the tiny piazza in front of the church where they light a bonfire to burn dry branches of a kind of pampas grass called panussi. Then, around the bonfire the locals form a circle to dance a kind of tarantella to the music of the band. An MC shouts the directions to the left – 'Men only now, to the right, now the women, now children only!' All twirling and swirling in the August heat, sweat pouring down their faces and their bare arms while the flames dance higher and higher.
We were looking forward to seeing all this frenetic dancing but as were about to set out we had an unexpected visitor, a cousin from Messina anxious to share his woes.
'Mind if I smoke?' he begins, looking at me dubiously. He owns a tobacconist's and smokes one cigarette after another but, as we're outside, I could hardly object.
'Business is awful! All this anti-smoking nonsense is crazy. I'm thinking of selling before I go broke. People have no money to play the Lotto any more, not to mention cigarettes. They ask for a packet and then find they haven't enough cash to pay for it. Only the other day this guy I know – a volunteer with the Red Cross so I would have thought better of him – anyway, in he struts. "Twenty Marlborough Lights," he demands, and then, as I hand him the packet, "I'm a bit short of cash at the moment; pay you next week." "Fair enough," says I, 'But don't forget to remember!' With that, he curses, storms out and then rushes back again, slamming the cash on the counter. "There's your money, you miserable git!" says he, so naturally I call him a few more names and he thumps his fist on the glass partition and pulls out a knife with a long lethal looking blade. "I'll kill you! Come out!" Well, I get my gun, which I always keep handy, and shout "Come in here behind the counter, you bastard!"'
Tobacconists are permitted to own guns for self-protection and this particular shop was a stone's throw from the city jail. At this point in his tale the cousin is jumping up and down and the dogs think he is attacking us and leap to our defence.
'Calm down, dogs, it's all right. Sit down, cousin. So, what happened next?'
'Well, somebody phones the police and buddies of the guy with the knife manage to bring him to a taverna across the road to cool down By the time the police arrive the knife has disappeared. But you see what I mean? I can't take it any longer. The city has gone to the dogs. I'm fed up of paying the pizzo (protection money). By the way, did you hear the latest about the ex-mayor's wife? She is accused of being involved in a scandal over European Union money intended for a Back to Work scheme? They've put her under house-arrest. Poverina, stuck in her villa with a swimming pool, ha ha! What are you doing?'
Zing! My husband is chasing mosquitoes with his electric racket when suddenly he spies a bigger prey The punteruolo rosso, the nasty flying beetle-like insect with a hard red horn is hovering over our favourite palm tree.
'Got him! Look, I've saved the palm, for the moment anyway. But all over Sicily the palms are dying. Centuries old palms are being killed by these lethal bugs.'
'I know. They came in with some young palms imported from Africa.'
'Luckily they only attack one variety. The fan palms are safe, so far, anyway.'
'Are you coming to the city for Ferragosto?'
This, the feast of the Assumption on 15th August, is the most important celebration in the city of Messina, and a 500 year old tradition. A very high and heavy elaborate construction featuring papier maché angels and the figure of Christ launching his mother Mary on her way to Heaven. This 'Vara' is hauled by thousands of men and women who run through the main streets, which have been hosed down to facilitate the sliding of the huge contraption, to Piazza Duomo where flowers are thrown for good luck. For many years the men who ran barefoot and bare-chested were often delinquenti who claimed to be very religious and protected by the Madonna in spite of their demanding a pizzo from every shop and business. This habit of demanding protection money is rampant all over Sicily and only one town, Capo D'Orlando, has managed to organise a contro pizzo movement and refuse to pay the tangente.
This year, however, the cousin explains, there is a new Mayor representing a brand new party called Noponte (No Bridge) opposing the plan by Berlusconi's party to build a bridge across the Straits dividing the island from the mainland. This new sindaco has decided to make a clean sweep and not allow anyone with a dodgy record to pull the Vara. The haulers will have to wear white tee-shirts with Addio Pizzo printed on them and the mayor himself will take part in the parade.
By the time the cousin leaves it's too late to drive up to see the dancing saint and his fans.
By the time the eve of Ferragosto comes, our guests have departed and we are alone. Most evenings the little village of San Giorgio holds balli lisci ('Tea dancing') in the piazza after dark, but this evening, strangely, no music wafts up from the seaside. The telly is showing 'Some Like it Hot' which I have always missed, so I stay up to watch it. By the time I get to bed himself is snoring gently, but just as I am drifting off he leaps up with a shout of panic.
'An earthquake? Oh, go back to sleep, you're dreaming!'
'You didn't feel it? It was quite a jolt!'
'Oh, go back to sleep. You can play the lotto tomorrow. What's the number for earthquake?'
'I can't remember.'
The dogs are barking insistently: a bad sign, but I stay in bed and fall asleep while himself stays outside, gazing out to sea for signs of a tsunami.
He is delighted to be proved right when the early morning news reports a grade 4 quake occurred at 1.0 o'clock the previous night and hundreds of people rushed out of doors terrified of being caught inside crumbling houses. The epicentre was only a few kilometres away.
'See, I told you so. How could you have not noticed? How can you forget where we live?'
'Ah, so, our island is dancing again, is it? To celebrate Ferragosto?'