Secoli Siculi

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Sicily isn’t what you think it is. And then, every time you’re sure you’ve disciplined yourself to stop imagining it wrong and might finally be starting to get it right, Sicily shifts slightly out of your line of sight. In the main, Sicily doesn’t especially want you thinking about it. Be present, if you want, for the experiences that are here to be had, but don’t think about it. If you do, Sicily threatens, always, to make you cry. In fact, you could spend all of your time here crying: the smell of the ocean, the sound of it against the broken, corrugated shoreline where ancient lava flows stopped, the sense that nothing changes, nothing gets repainted, that nothing is rescued from the natural, not to say aboriginal, processes: aging, collapse, decomposition.

But that only goes to show how wrong it is to say that nothing changes, because everything changes constantly: the growth of vegetation is riotous, unrestrained, even vaguely menacing in its tropical tenacity, in that unexceptional cycle of the vegetable world, the way debris stay right where they fell, the way life grows right up through them, is even nourished by the decay and the stink piled at its feet.

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Every now and then there’s a fierce, driving storm, like the one on my second morning in Riposto, that doesn’t so much clean everything as move it along toward its next phase. More than half of Etna was obscured by clouds while the storm pounded, then it disappeared completely behind a gray-blue veil and the air filled with the vaguely erotic scent of rain. The next morning, the sun was an obsidian knife, and all but the very crest of Etna had emerged from the cloud cover.

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Etna takes up almost as much sight as you have to give it, 180 degrees of the horizon, from the narrow edge of one eye all the way to the other one. Looking at Etna, the sea is at your back, which in the full light of the sun is a color you have no choice but to call “blue,” even knowing, as you say it, that “blue” is a diminution, an approximation, nearly an insult in the way it demonstrates your laziness and stupefaction and poverty of imagination that you can’t come up with a better word than that: blue. Blue is to this ocean what a cave painting is to a mammoth. Think of all the things in this world that we call blue. The ocean here isn’t the color of any of them, not one damn one.

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And yet the main impression is of color: reds and a hundred shades of green against the deep, absorptive black of old lava, and then the pastel pink of buildings along the lungomare, a pink that consents to emerge only after decades: 20,440 days of sun, 2,500 days of unrelenting wind, another few thousand of indifferent grayness or semi-sun or who-knows-what-the-weather-means-to-do-today, and all of that bathed in microlayers of marine salt and carbon fumes and grit from the general subsidence of antique buildings and failing plaster. That’s what it takes to get a pink like that. It’s no color for the impatient.

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One afternoon, Y and I sat on a bench on the seafront and watched the rocks. One of them—the little one far off in right hand side of the photo—seemed to be hanging on by a sliver, ready to break off at any moment and tumble into the ocean. We’d just sit and wait until it happened, and Y would capture the whole thing with his digital camera. The rock had to fall eventually; that much was inevitable. The only question was when.

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We watched the gulls take off and land and suspend themselves motionless in the air as if by invisible strings, and we kept our eye on the rock. The sun came out and went back behind a cloud. The voices of passersby reached us and receded; sometimes the smell of seaweed and salt water was strong, and sometimes the wind blew it away. I remembered a phrase from my horoscope of that morning (they come free to my cell phone every day, just to make sure I hear from someone): Non essere restio ai cambiamenti. (“Don’t be reluctant to accept change.”) In my thoughts, I sent the same advice to the rock: “Non essere restio ai cambiamenti,” I said. But the rock didn’t fall. For a moment I had the terrifying, miraculous sensation that we might really, truly sit there, chatting and feeling the wind against our bodies, until it did.

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Posted on 8 October 2005, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. …And just think that I showed you not more than a tiny bit of the Eastern Sicily, in a single specific week of the year… As a Sicilian, I can tell you Sicily still shifts out of my sight… Yako “E comunque era viola!”(Andrea Pazienza)

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