Mary Taylor Simeti
Like most young Americans travelling abroad in the early sixties, I arrived in Sicily with an excessive number of suitcases, considerable ignorance, and a great many warnings. In college I had studied the Sicilian Middle Ages, and over the summer I had read about Sicilian poverty in the writings of Danilo Dolci, the social reformer at whose centre for community development I hoped to volunteer. This kernel of fact, meagre as it was, had been fleshed out by the cautionary tales of friends and acquaintances, both at home and in the north of Italy, who all considered me courageous, if not downright foolish, to set off by myself for an island of dazzling sun and bright colours where bandits and mafiosi lurked in the shadows and where the rest of the population was proud and reserved, distrustful of foreigners, and sure to misinterpret the presence of a young girl alone.
But from the window of the train that was bearing me south to Palermo the only colour to be seen was grey: grey storm clouds piled up against grey mountains, grey olive trees tossing up the silver undersides of their leaves to the wind, and a grey sea tossing up silver foam onto grey rocks and beaches as the train threaded its way through the necklace of tunnels and coves strung out along the coasts of Calabria and northern Sicily.
My mother was living in Florence at that time, and it was there that I boarded the train in the middle of the night. Living on my own in a Sicilian village was not what my mother had had in mind when she offered me a year in Italy to celebrate my graduation from Radcliffe, and as she saw me into my compartment she was obviously hard put to be both encouraging and liberal minded, and yet with the same breath remind me to be careful about the men, the Mafia, the drinking water, and all the other things that would no doubt come back to her as soon as the train pulled out of the station.
On her graduation trip in 1924 she and her college roommate had left the boat at Naples and taken a train across southern Italy to Bari. They were the only women on the train, and the soldiers who shared their compartment spent the whole trip comparing my mother’s ankles to those of her friend by measuring them between thumb and forefinger. Yet I did not recognize in her story my own age, my own curiosity, my own train ride south, since I was still too young to believe that she might ever have had any experience relevant to mine. So I hushed her up and settled my suitcases as quickly as I could, anxious not to disturb my fellow travellers who were already sleeping in their bunks. The Florence stop was not a long one, and soon we were moving, my mother waving forlornly in the yellow light of the station platform as the darkness swallowed us up.
It was not a restful night. I was too excited to do more than doze, and two of my fellow travellers turned out to be under three and equally excited, so I was glad when the train pulled into Naples in the uncertain light of a grey dawn, and I could abandon any pretence of sleep and introduce myself to the Sicilian family whose compartment I was sharing. My Italian was only just adequate and I was quite unaccustomed to the Sicilian accent, but I managed to understand that they had emigrated to Milan in search of work some years before and were returning to Palermo for a visit. I also managed to explain that I was travelling alone, via Palermo, to the town of Partinico, where I intended to live by myself and to work for the next year or two.
They were horrified. Throughout the morning, as we wove our way slowly down the Calabrian coast, they alternated between pressing me with large rolls and thick slices of salami from their shopping bag of provisions, and reiterating their surprise and indignation that a young American girl should choose - nay - should be allowed to wander off into the wilds of Sicily with no family to protect her. There was no censure, only commiseration. Surely my mother was out of her mind.
By the time the train had backed and filled itself, first on, then off the ferry that carried us across the Straits of Messina, it was early afternoon, but the heavy rain that shut out the landscape made it seem still later. Another passenger joined us at Messina, a man in his thirties who stared at me steadily from behind his dark glasses. His gaze was, however, a minor discomfort. What I could not avoid was the fact that I had wired the Dolci Center asking to be met at the Palermo station at two-thirty, yet as the train rolled on it was becoming increasingly apparent that we couldn’t possibly arrive anywhere near that hour. At last I broke the silence that had fallen upon the compartment since the man in dark glasses had joined us, and asked if we were far from Palermo. It turned out that we still had most of Sicily to cross, that the scheduled arrival time was two hours later than I had been told in Florence, and furthermore the man in
Confident of being met in Palermo, I had neglected to plan beyond my arrival there. I had no idea in which direction Partinico lay or how I could get there on my own. Neither, it turned out, did my fellow passengers, who were all true Palermitani and considered anything that lay beyond as unworthy of civilized interest
dark glasses, who worked for the railroad, claimed that the train was already an hour behind schedule. As the afternoon wore on and the sky got darker and darker, it became clearer and clearer that there would be no one waiting for me at the Palermo station.
I was somewhat of an anachronism even for 1962: most of my travelling had been done with my family, and in almost the same style in which my mother had travelled in 1924—not a step taken without the blessings of Wagon-Lits Cook. Confident of being met in Palermo, I had neglected to plan beyond my arrival there. I had no idea in which direction Partinico lay or how I could get there on my own. Neither, it turned out, did my fellow passengers, who were all true Palermitani and considered anything that lay beyond as unworthy of civilized interest. They supposed that there was a bus to Partinico, but when and from where it might depart, nobody knew.
The compartment took my plight to heart, discussing the pros and cons of the various possible solutions with what I was discovering to be a true Mediterranean love and enthusiasm for other people’s problems. And, unfortunately for my already shattered peace of mind, with the true Mediterranean sense of melodrama: it seemed that wherever I might turn, a fate worse than death awaited me. I suggested a hotel. “A young girl alone?!” The couple insisted that I go with them to their parents’ house, but with visions of sleeping six to a bed I assured them that that was quite impossible. The man in dark glasses then promised that the minute we arrived he would go off to find out about the bus, and it was on that note of dramatic suspense that the train finally emerged from the darkening rain into the relative cheer of the Palermo station.
Vast numbers of relatives were waiting to welcome home the young family, and, reluctantly accepting my last grateful but firm refusal of their offers of hospitality, they climbed down to be wrapped up and carried off in a cloud of tears, cries, and resounding kisses.
I had brought with me all and more than I needed for a year’s stay and could not take a step without assistance. But the man in dark glasses helped me to assemble my luggage on the station platform and went off in search of a bus schedule. The astonishingly large crowd that had been waiting for the train had by this time captured and borne off its prey, and the platform was almost empty except for the railway workers. Perched on a large pile of suitcases, I watched the man in dark glasses disappear into the station. I felt sure that I would never see him again, and twenty-four hours of travel and admonitions had so flattened me that I never stopped to think how strange it was that this should upset me. But in a few minutes he was back.
“The last bus left an hour ago. There is nothing to be done. I must drive you to Partinico in my car.”
My better judgment didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t until my suitcases and I were piled into a little Fiat and parked by a bar where the man in dark glasses was telephoning to his mamma that he would be late for supper, that the voice of my mamma could be heard above my desperation. Who was this man who was driving me off into the night? I was still debating whether I had time to get out and make a note of the number on the licence plate without being caught in what would have been an excruciatingly embarrassing position when he came back and we were off.
The lights of the city dropped rapidly behind and below us, as the road we were following climbed steadily upward. It was almost completely dark now, but the headlights reflecting off the wet tar gave enough light for me to see that we were curving back and forth along the side of a mountain, sheer rock on my side of the road, sheer drop on the other. It was interesting, he’d never driven this road before, said he as we skidded briskly around the bends. Very, said I, bracing myself for the crash.
It seemed an endless journey, but it can’t have been more than half an hour before we were in Partinico, asking directions to the Centre, and I was wondering how I could be sufficiently polite and grateful while discouraging any follow-up on our acquaintance. The Centre was still open, and when I and all my luggage were safely unloaded, the man in dark glasses shook my hand, waved aside my thanks, and drove off. I never saw him again, or had another chance to express my gratitude for what he had done for me.
I owe him much more than just a ride. By his disinterested generosity toward a foreigner in difficulty, the man in dark glasses stripped me of the prejudices instilled by the warnings of well-meaning friends and delivered me to Partinico with my honour and my belongings intact, my spirit cheered, and my mind free to discover Sicily for myself.
Now, as twenty years later I attempt to draw a portrait of my destination, I can see that these two figures have stood sentinel throughout my journey: my mother, whose passionate curiosity for all that surrounded her was a legacy far more valuable to me than her warnings, and the nameless Sicilian whose chivalrous gesture was my introduction to the strong, impulsive soul of Sicily, a soul that reaches across and beyond all that is so distressing here and, like the island sun, warms and illumines even as it creates dark shadows.