Mary Tay­lor Simeti

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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