The trip to Sicily passes in a series of singularities. I’ll never replicate the moments, the moods; life is always that way, but we travel to remember the fact. When experience is so immediate, each moment’s window is so near our face that we forget we’re looking through glass. First gear makes this crunchy sound on its way to second. The drivers in Sicily drive as if to kill, but if you stick your nose out they let you in. You’re in a hunk of green metal that gets you there—God, the autonomy of a car again—but if you can’t find a place to park you’ll be sleeping with your head on the dash tonight.
The moments seem to shape themselves. We wake up each morning to a new and transparent world. Then we leave and enter another one.
The first view of Mt. Etna through the clouds. The sun rising behind them, one red sliver glowing between the strips of grey.
The giant’s sigh of the airplane wheels when they touch the ground.
The man on the screen of the automated rental car kiosk, a spitting likeness of David Foster Wallace, struggling with the software as I sign my life away and hold the kiosk’s black phone to my head.
My irrepressible smile when we get on the road because suddenly, after months of riding Malta’s jerky, halting buses, I am water and the traffic is a river around me. The little car listens when I say go.
The man sprawled on Santa Tecla’s rocky black beach in a Speedo.
The hills that climb up from the ocean, full of actual trees.
The teenage biker gang we find gathered beside the car after our shoreside lunch, revving engines while the old people of the town cross their arms and stare at the sea.
Taormina: An impossible maze of roads until an elderly man gives us directions and we follow them the wrong way down a sloping one way street (“The sign says you can’t go there, but go anyway,” I could swear he said) until the street tightens and curves and now narrows to a dead end. The quivering side mirrors, the burning clutch as F. and I ease the car backward up the alley’s long hill, waiting for a fiberglass crunch. The relief when we don’t hear it; when we sit at the top of the alley with wide eyes and let the clutch and our hearts rest. Now my memories flood in: Of burning out the clutch of our ‘88 VW in a hilly cemetery when I was 16. Of the Cabriolet sliding backward, backward, as I tried to rev up our driveway’s steep hill.
Castelmola: An embalmed village this time of year. Bar Turris, recommended for its naughty décor, is gutted and buzzing with drills. Cake and tea, then. Exhaustion. We might as well be sitting in clouds.
But the look on the man’s face at the B&B when I start to speak Italian to him.
His dog Ice, a three-month old husky.
And the rooftop terrace, where you can see Etna to the right against the ice-blue sky, a clifftop castle behind, Taormina’s duomo and main street on the left, and the Ionian Sea blue-grey ahead, stretching south of Calabria toward (why not?) forever.
The watered-down wine at dinner.
The waiter, sniffing like he has the plague.
The total dark of our room when all the shutters are closed, and the way the dark stays well into the morning. We could be in a cave. We could be nowhere, but we are here.
Or: The blue-gold morning, silent like no silence I can recall. Weird orange juice from concentrate. Cream cheese and a hard-boiled egg. The terrace seems not to have woken either; only we are awake and the world is sleeping brightly around us.
The place on the stairs where the proprietor and I meet after we’ve checked out and left and then realized in a flash what we forgot: he holds out his hand and I hold out his keys.
The grocery store south of town. Every fruit and vegetable for 79 cents a kilo. A cashier that’s tired of foreigners stumbling through town.
The road, up, up.
The volcano free of snow.
At the night’s B&B, the skinny dude who watches us pull in and speaks in a confused brogue that’s neither Italian nor English. Something about hot water, but I can’t figure out what.
Then the proprietor, who explains with exaggerated gestures that the hot water is off and everyone has left and if we want to stay we can stay and he can give us a discount but if we don’t want to stay he understands he wouldn’t stay it’s costing him all kinds of money and oh my God.
We don’t stay.
But the frustration of this.
The way you can’t just book a place and go to the place and stay in the place. The way everything, even vacation, finds a way to be hard.
All the other B&Bs in town are closed and I keep driving upward anyway, toward no-town, out of angry energy. The silence in the car.
The black gravel slot on the side of the road where we pull over and I wonder to an overlook beneath a series of flimsy wooden beams that are cemented into the ground like a shelter but without a roof, with only the skeleton of a roof. I hate driving around. I hate everything. I am cold and frustrated and I know this and I try to apologize to F. but how do you apologize for something you’re still doing. The useless wooden structure is a metaphor for my anger. The view is green hills rolling down into the sea.
Then Zaffarena, Villa Hirschen, German and Italian and English spoken.
The Camera Matromoniale, with a bed and a cot and a cradle crouched insistently beside the bed.
A picture of God above the headboard. God in the arms of his mother.
The lava frozen black in the valley above.
Our hard steps as we climb the cobbled trail into that valley, frustration and anger and purposelessness slipping out the soles of my feet.
The man who we meet there: mustachioed, eager in a relaxed way, ran twenty kilometers this morning up this path, is now ascending to meet his friends. His friends: one quiet man and one man with enthusiastically terrible teeth who waves his walking stick as he describes to me the beautiful panorama above and, tangentially, the American military bases that are located all over strategic Sicily. The dog: whining for food.
The beautiful panorama above.
The volcano’s smoking peak beside the falling sun.
Such total destruction. Black, lifeless. But in the cracks, still, one or two little plants.
To find that we are still good at wonder.
That night, the warmth of the modest restaurant where we eat our dinner. The family and friends who wander in. The long dark road back to Villa Hirschen, which doesn’t seem as long and dark as it did when we walked down it.
The curtains that line the walls.
Our clothes thrown over the cot and the benches and the floor.
Those fifteen minutes before you fall asleep: minutes you never remember. But precious ones. Unaware of awareness. Which has to mean that in those moments parts of you are even more aware.
Or: The wheel of cheese. The fresh squeezed orange juice. The soft white bread. The honey dispensers. The proprietor wanders among the bounty. For him it has become a routine. Every morning a view of the ocean from five hundred meters and enough breakfast for a week.
His driving cap. His Chow-Chow dog. His son who manages a restaurant in Las Vegas and the visits the proprietor makes there every six months. A big white Defender in the carport. Hand painted names on tiles in front of each of the rooms, of beautiful things, of flowers and places and people he used to know.
Then the road out of Zaffarena to Etna Sud, curling up and up again as the solidified lava flow becomes broader and finally total, nothing but black rock all around us. The sky gondola thrums above the black slopes. The ski lift is motionless for lack of snow.
The steep sandy slope of volcanic sand we try to climb up.
The moment we give up and decide to follow the tourist path instead.
The top of the crater, where a guide explains to a bilingual family that the craters you see here were the result of a great underground vein of lava, but now they are solidified and safe enough that you can build a house on them. The family’s mother looks down Etna’s long slope at a village that was destroyed a hundred years ago by lava and then rebuilt. She asks, But why do people build their houses here?
The guide doesn’t seem interested by the question. She waves her hands. Because the air, the view. Because, she says, it’s beautiful.
The radio station AFNEAGLE on the way down. The advertisement: Be careful what you post on social media. The littlest indiscretion could give us away.
Loose lips sink ships.
Getting the Fiat up to fifth gear.
Slowing it to second when we get to Noto, to Strada Provinciale. Driving up and down the two kilometer long road in search of our last night’s stay. Getting lost enough that we begin to pull into random driveways and ask: Do you know this place we’ve reserved? Do you know this man we reserved it with?
At a field of weeds and trash on the side of the road, I pull over and pee and begin to convince myself that the Airbnb posting is a scam. That I hate this M. guy, that he’s screwed us over, that nothing ever works. Why does nothing ever work?
Then the feeling of elation and exasperation when deep in the details of the Airbnb post we discover a hint that corresponds to a sign we passed. Are you kidding me, I say. I know exactly where the sign is. I turn the car around and tear back over the pavement, a little sad to leave my anger behind.
When we arrive, I’m chastened by the place’s beauty. By the dogs, Milo and Shira, and their little puppy son. By the goats, the mini-goats, the donkey, the stone huts, the quiet of the valley in the afternoon, the olive trees that promenade all the way to the mild embankment on the edge of the property.
Salad with fresh oranges for dinner, bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, pasta with eggplant and spicy oil, meat wrapped around cheese. Olives and sundried tomatoes. Red wine gone a little vinegary.
Our inflated stomachs when we go to bed.
In the middle of the night: Happy Birthday! Thanks, I mumble. I’m trying to sleep.
The dogs go nuts outside. Across the whole valley, barks and echoes of barks. Imagine every night this way.
The owls proceed stoically with their hooting.
Or: A tealight to blow out first thing. Gifts. A card. All twenty-eight of my years.
Tiny pieces of toast. Tea. The dogs wander in and silently beg.
Packing slowly. Backing up the drive. Flying down the Strada Provinciale and through Noto, which they say is beautiful. We don’t stop. We say, Yeah, if we had more time.
Then the south side of Syracuse. The grey sea. The tightly packed houses at the end of the peninsula and the tourist restaurants that lure us in.
What is Syracuse? The empty Piazza Duomo, a lonely accordion player, a man begging for money, a throng of Germans that burst into the scene.
Apollo’s Temple: another yard of rocks. Apparently we are ready to go home.
So, the twists and turns of highway through Catania and into the airport.
The man at the gas station who yells to me across the pumps: Airport? Straight, straight! And I am proud to say, Lo so. I know.
The empty security checkpoint in the terminal, where they ask F. to go through the metal detector a second time after she makes it beep. But she makes it beep again and they don’t say anything, so she looks around in vexation and shrugs and goes.
A last minute airport canoli, as per the recommendation of everyone we told we were going to Sicily.
A last minute book from the airport bookstore, in case I never see Italy again.
The long stalled line in the gangway.
The sound of the jet engines and the way the landscape rushes past.
Then, in the air, the weird tension of never settling in for the flight. The second you’re not going up you’re going down. And from the air you can see the entirety of Malta—there’s St. Julian’s, there’s Valletta, there’s Marsaskala. So you know precisely what you’re getting into again.
Nobody sighs with relief when we’re on the ground. They pull out their bags and hit the tarmac and march through the nearly abandoned door-to-the-outside, where at any other time there’d be layers of family waiting for their long lost daughters or sons or fathers or mothers. But we’re only coming from Sicily, not far enough to excuse fanfare. People pace head down into the world again. We do too. It’s perfect timing with the bus, which is just pulling up when we walk out the sliding front doors of the airport.
Then we sit on it for longer than the flight itself. F. gets off at her house. I stay on my bumping seat with my backpack between my legs.
I know people think I’m a tourist. I know they don’t know I live here, that I will teach a class tomorrow, that I will jump back into the world I left.
The street back up to my apartment is the same as always. Uneven, narrow sidewalks. Cars parked tight against them.
Inside, everything smells the same. Everything is the same. I set my backpack down on my bed and stare around my room. I still can’t find my epiphany.
This is the eleventh in a series in which I live in Malta for a year. Find the rest of the series here.
This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.