Thursday, June 28, 2012

Under the Sicilian Sun

Last night, Nick and I watched Under the Tuscan Sun.  This is the third time that I have dragged my patient and long suffering husband to the living room couch to watch this film with me.  And it’s probably the 10th or 12th time that I have watched the film myself.  While Toscana may not be the part of Italy that captures my imagination (this is not a dig at Tuscany – it is every bit as romantic and beautiful as the movie portrays), the fictionalized story of Frances Mayes absolutely does capture me and has ever since the film was released in 2003. 

At the time that Under the Tuscan Sun hit the theatres I was divorced and had been on my own with my daughter for nine years.  I related to Frances in so many ways.  I understood the pain of marriage ended by my ex-husband’s infidelity.  Her struggle to grow beyond the heartache and the loneliness was more familiar than I cared to admit.  Watching Frances reinvent herself was exciting; her brief fling with Marcello, while ultimately short-lived, threw me into a daydream that, perhaps, I too could have a thrilling romantic affair with a dark-haired Italian man.  As Frances’ wish for a family and a wedding came true, I believed that my wishes could come true as well.  And, to make it even more wonderful, it happened against the backdrop of a country that had remained the very definition of romance and magic for me since my teenage years.

While the fictionalized story of Frances Mayes in the film, and her autobiographical account in the book of the same name, made me almost salivate with the desire to do the same, I had a ten-year-old daughter, a mortgage, and a career that kept me from even considering something like a move to another country.  A house in Italy was nothing but a very unlikely daydream.

Fast forward to April 2005.  A good friend had convinced me that Internet dating was a good idea.  Well, in fact she threatened to make a profile for me if I didn’t do it myself.  Although the thought of online dating was terrifying, she was right.  It was a good idea – in fact it was a great idea.  I spent six months going out for coffee, for walks, and to movies with a series of very nice men that I connected with through the dating site that my friend, Wendy, had insisted I join.  While all of the men that I met and chatted with online were fun, interesting, kind, etc., but there was no spark – that connection that would make me want to see them more than once or twice was not there.  Then, one day, early in October, I met someone new for coffee.  He was already waiting in the coffee shop and I could see him sitting at a table next to a window.  Dark hair, dark eyes, I had found my Sicilian romance.

It was clear to us almost immediately that we were a match and by the third date we were an exclusive couple.  We had discovered at that first coffee that we were both travellers - travellers and not tourists.  We both had done a lot of travelling, and we were thrilled to find out that we had each visited Sicily at age 13.  I was especially excited to hear that topping Nick's list for future travel was Italy.  It was, however, the first time we watched Under the Tuscan Sun that the topic of buying a home in Italy came up.  A retirement home in Sicily actually seemed to be in our future.  

Today, that Sicilian-Canadian man is my husband and this summer we are heading off to Sicily to search for our retirement home.  I look back over the almost seven years since we met and I realize that I have indeed, reinvented myself.  How appropriate it is, then, that we are following the path of Frances Mayes and her husband.  The wishes that I made back in 2003 have all come true.  I have a loving husband and a daughter who has grown up to be an independent, fierce young woman.  To years ago I returned, with Nick and my daughter, to both Venice and Sicily and they were as wonderful as I remembered.  

And now, Nick and I are planning a life together in Sicily.  How could I have imagined, that day back in 1974 when I climbed onto the plane bound for London, that the exciting holiday I was about to embark upon would be the first step to a lifetime moving me towards my dream home in romantic Sicily.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

My Journey to Italy, Part 3

P&O Line's SS Nevasa
We left Venice after boarding a luxury cruise ship - the SS Nevasa.  As I mentioned in my first post, we were not to be amongst the first class passengers, nor the second class either.  In fact, we were placed in what had once been steerage, when this ship was used to transport passengers across the Atlantic from Britain to North America.  I slept in a room with 32 bunks and 31 other teenage girls.

This is not a complaint in anyway.  We had sufficient bathrooms, the food was really very good, and the crew treated us well.  

Our itinerary took us to some truly remarkable places - Corfu, Tunis, Carthage, Gibralter, Vigo - but after Venice, I seriously doubted I would find such a magical place again.  That is, until we docked in Messina.  As our ship entered the port of Messina on the northeast corner of Sicily, it passed, as do all ships, a tall column topped with a gilt statue of the Little Holy Mother.  She towered over the harbour and I only had the slightest inkling that she was likely the Madonna.  Yet, as I looked up at her, I found myself wondering if she was there not just to welcome us, but to protect us.  Beneath the column was a sentence, unintelligible not only to me but to all of the Canadian teens hanging onto the rails watching her as we passed.  The words below the column stated in Latin: "Vos Et Ipsam Civitatem Benedicimus."  Later I learned that the words meant, "We bless you and the city" but at the time their incomprehensibility simply added to the mystery that Italy had already presented to me.  

Once off the ship, our ears were battered with a louder and seemingly wilder sounding Italian.  Today, I realize that what I was hearing was Sicilian and not Italian.  It is rougher, grown from the land that supports Sicilians and feeds the rest of Italy.  It is an ancient language - some believe it is the oldest of the Romance languages - and it is a tie that hold all Sicilians to their roots, no matter where in the world they have landed.  As Venice was refined and perhaps a little arrogant, Messina was chaotic and proud with emotions smouldering at the surface.  There was no denying the pride in the voices and the walk of the men as they strode by us, calling to each other.  The Arabic blood infused from invasions centuries before was still evident in the colouring of the faces that looked at us suspiciously.  

Sicilians have a reputation of being suspicious - particularly those who live inland on their ancient island.  Even my husband's family was a little suspicious of me at first.  But, in my experience, it takes very little to get beyond the suspicion and to be welcomed enthusiastically - especially if you appreciate their island as much as they do.  

We climbed aboard a bus that took us past the crowded streets and busy traffic of Messina.  Soon we were driving along winding coastal roads.  Gasps and short screams could be heard up and down the bus as our driver took these hairpin turns at breakneck speed, leaving us certain that we would be toppling over a cliff edge before we could reach our destination - Taormina to the south.  And if we managed to survive the cliffs, certainly Etna, steam rising ominously to our right, would erupt and we would have to try to outrun a lava flow, or the mafia would jump out with machine guns to rob us of our few lira.  This land seemed to be a place full of danger and excitement.  Yet somehow, the driver managed to safely navigate the roads, Etna behaved herself for that moment at least, and Marlin Brando and his mafioso managed to leave this group of Canadian school kids alone.

We were taken on a walking tour of Taormina and saw quite a bit of the tourist town, but what I remember best was the Greek amphitheatre.  Grade eight English focused on mythology and before I left Canada for this adventure, I had been reading Greek myths in class.  As we walked through the opening that took us into the amphitheatre, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that those gods that were now familiar to me; Zeus, Hera, Apollo, amongst others, were following me as I walked around the dusty ruins.

The Greek amphitheatre in Taormina

Suddenly, it was not only Zeus, Hera and Apollo that were walking with me - it was Eros too.  Just ahead of me only a few steps, sat a group of dark haired, olive skinned young men, grinning wildly at us - suspicion completely missing from their faces.  Although I was only 13, I looked much older - closer to 18.  My teenage heart beat wildly as they waved me over.  Genevieve, my best friend was walking beside me.  I grabbed her hand for support and then boldly approached them.

Franco is the second from the left.

They pointed at my camera, making picture taking motions and then pointing at themselves.  They wanted their picture taken.  They were raucous and friendly and soon, a large group of Canadian girls had joined Genevieve and me and a mass group photo was organized.

I found myself sitting next to the one I had quickly deemed the most handsome.  He pointed to his chest and said "Franco", encouraging me to pronounce it after him.  Unable to say the trilled "R", he laughed at my pronunciation.  Pointing at me, I answered his unspoken question with a simple "Diane".  "Ah," he responded, "Deanna," and I laughed as well.  Our attention was taken by a call to say "Cheese!" and we turned away from each other.  Once the picture had been taken, our guide told us to return to the bus, it was time to make our way back to Messina.  As I started to follow the crowd, Franco grabbed my hand and closed my fist around a sharp piece of paper.  Then he waved with a quick "Ciao!" and he was gone.  On the bus, I examined the piece of paper - it was a photograph - a small head shot - and on the back he had written, 'Franco Vitale' followed by an address in Palermo. He was a tourist as well.  That was it.  My 13-year-old heart was smitten.  I kept that photo under my pillow for the rest of the trip, and dreamed of the day that I had met Franco.

What happened with Franco?  When I eventually returned to Canada, I begged one of my school friends to ask her mother to help me write a letter to him in Italian.  She very kindly did - twice - and then she became a little tired, I think, of this smitten teenage friend of her daughter.  I tried to write in English, he tried to write in Italian, but, unable to understand each other's letters, eventually we stopped writing.  Wherever Franco Vitale is today, I wish him well.  He is probably close to 60 now.  I was already well taken with Italy, but because of him it is Sicily that I associate with romance and not the more common places such as Rome or Florence or Venice.  And that is an association that I think my Sicilian husband appreciates today.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thoughts On My Mosaic

I am sitting at my sunny Canadian kitchen table.  I have turned the television on to The Latin Network (TLN) where Nick and I get our Italian fix.  It is the first round of the UEFA Euro Cup 2012 - Italy is playing Ireland and I am watching it in Italian.  What a dilemma!  I don’t know who to cheer for.  My father’s family came from Donegal and the one visit my daughter and I made to Ireland (Cork) was meaningful for both of us.  Somehow the green fields of Ireland are in my DNA and the rolling hills dotted with sheep felt like coming home.  But Italy is my adopted home.  Nick and I have not yet bought la nostra casa siciliana (our Sicilian house), and my upbringing was far from anything that my Sicilian-Canadian husband experienced yet I am drawn to this place that he and I will soon be calling our second home.  Six years ago, very early on in our relationship, Nick and I watched Italy win the World Cup.  Now, you must understand that my husband is not a sports fan in any way.  He is much happier reading a biography or watching an obscure video on his iPad.  But, just as I watch and cheer for the Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs to the Stanley Cup (hockey) and the BC Lions in their race for the Grey Cup (Canadian football), watching Italy play for the World Cup or the Euro Cup is in his blood and, if he were not at work, he would, in all likelihood, be here watching it with me today.

The teams are not evenly matched.  I may be a neophyte football fan but even I can see that Italy is far outplaying Ireland.  It is only Ireland’s outstanding goalkeeper, Given, that keeps the score at 0-0 for so long.  The Irish in the stands, covered with green paint never let up their cheering and right next to them the Italian fans are shouting just as loudly and waving the Italian flag.  Given stopped a truly impressive number of shots on goal but in the end Italy took the match 2-0.

This is the quintessential Canadian dilemma.  Unlike the United States’ melting pot, Canada truly is a cultural mosaic.  It may not be perfect, and we certainly have our fair share of racists and xenophobes, but overall the cultural mosaic is entrenched in our Canadian identity.  So who am I?  Certainly (as the Molson beer ad says) I am Canadian, but as I compared my childhood experiences to that of my husband, I can see how influenced by my English, Welsh and Irish backgrounds my family of origin is.  From the food that my mother cooked (roast beef with Yorkshire pudding every Sunday dinner) to the more intrinsic and insidious way that our family took on the “stiff upper lip” that is a hallmark of my grandfather’s British culture, we are Anglo-Irish through and through.  When we visit Nick’s cousins and I listen to them argue and shout at each other I know that it means little and it is no more an indication of lack of love that my father’s taciturn nature was to me. 

But there is more to our mosaic than just the history of our family of origin.  I spent three years of my life in Japan – three years that defined who I am as an adult.  My first husband was Japanese and my daughter is Nikkei-jin, Japanese Canadian.  In my soul there is a spot that will always be occupied by the aspects of Japanese culture that were and are dearest to me.  And now, my heart and soul have been opened to Sicily and my husband’s wonderful family.  Who we are is molded and shaped by our experiences, by whom we know and love, by the places we live and visit.  I may not be Japanese or Italian but those cultures have left their indelible marks on me.  I am grateful to be from a place that values characteristics and practices from all cultures.  It makes me who I am today.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

My Journey to Italy Part 2

A beautiful spring day welcomed us to London.

England at last!  We were all grabbing for our carry-on bags and jostling to be close to the front of the line to be first to be down the stairs onto the tarmac.  It was a beautiful spring day - cool and breezy but with a bright blue sky and little clouds drifting across.  It looked perfect.  And it was perfect, our time there - the brilliant moving lights of Piccadilly Circus at night, 

the quiet solemnity of Westminster Abbey, 

the peace of Salisbury Cathedral, the silent power of Stonehenge, 

Stonehenge - in 1974 you could actually walk in amongst the stones.

the bustling shops of Greenwich market, and the grandeur of the changing of the guards outside Buckingham Palace.  

Changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace.

It was everything that I had read about - all the amazing pictures I had found in our local library matched with what was before me as I walked the streets of London, and the country lanes of Salisbury.  I was perfectly satisfied and felt that nothing that was yet to come could match anything I had already seen.

We were ushered onto a plane - this time Alitalia - and we settled in to comfortable seats as, much to our amazement, the stewardesses offered us wine!  The adults supervising us quickly put a stop to this, much to the amusement of the flight crew.  This was the first crack in the doorway that would soon swing open and lead us to the magic that we discovered in Italy. 

A short two hours later we were landing in Venice's Marco Polo Airport.  It was a short bus ride to Venice itself and onto a boat to take us along the Grand Canal to the Piazza di San Marco.  

Venice, out into open water.

As we climbed into the canal-taxi, we giggled and poked each other, pretending to fall overboard, holding our noses at the unpleasant odour rising up from the canal.  The sun was warm on our shoulders but not so hot that we could feel it burning our skin.  As soon as we were settled, the taxi pulled away from the dock.  

View from the water taxi as we made our way to the Piazza di San Marco.

As we rocked slowly along the canal, the guide spoke to us about the houses rising out of the water - they appeared ancient to our New World eyes.  Arab decor, lacy and exotic, rimmed the edges of the balconies.  The windows were ornately decorated too, hiding homes of the rich and of the famous behind the curtains.  We passed the home of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - three elegant stories none of which suggested that the inhabitants were Hollywood royalty.  

The home of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. 

Between the houses there were intermittent smaller canals lying in shadow.  Peeking out from the edges of these canals were small powerboats and gondolas

 Planters filled with flowers hung from upper windows and small arched bridges framed the lower levels.  In the Grand Canal, we passed under the Rialto Bridge and we could hear vendors calling out their wares from the shops above us.  

A corner of the Rialto Bridge.

I had never seen, nor imagined, a place as magical as this.  

Eventually we pulled out of the Grand Canal and into open water.  The taxi docked shortly and we found ourselves disembarking in front of stunning hotels - I felt sure that if I looked hard enough I would see Roger Moore dressed as James Bond come walking through the ornate doors.  Beautiful Italian women dressed in clothes I had only seen in magazines walked on the arms of handsome Italian men - dark haired and romantic, towards the Piazza di San Marco where they, like so many Italians do all over the country, would walk about to see and be seen.  We all stood, mouths open, awed by the splendour of medieval meeting modern.  We followed the pedestrian flow into the piazza.  Almost immediately we were surrounded by pigeons, hoping for a scattering of crumbs from the new tourists entering the square.  Once more, we were awed by the size and grandeur of the piazza.  At one end was the duomo, the cathedral, towering above the square, quietly but inexorably dominating the participants in the life of the piazza.  On the other sides, the piazza was surrounded by tables with umbrellas hiding lovers whispering nothings, shading giggling school girls, and protecting the pale skinned tourists from the sun as they drank their espresso or ate their gelato.  As with the rest Venice, this place was bewitching.  People swirled around us, dance-like, to enter the Basilica in order to admire the art or to pray to Saint Mark.  They search for an empty table at a cafe, or they left the piazza to enter the dark, mysterious alleys that took them into the heart of Venice.

An entrance into Saint Mark's Basilica.

Our guide motioned us around the piazza, pointing out architectural features and giving us brief history lessons on Venice and its importance to the beginnings of the trade routes to Asia.  We listened distractedly, our attention taken by the hustle of the square.  Finally, our guide gave us the freedom that we had hoped for.  "If you get lost, just ask someone for the Piazza di San Marco.  Most Venetians are kind, they will point you in the right direction."

In small groups we wandered off into the narrow alleys, wanting to explore this city, so foreign to anything we had yet experienced.  Shop windows displaying long-nosed, colourful masks and beautiful glasswork were everywhere we looked.  The smell of freshly baked pizza wafted into the streets, covering the unpleasant odours from the canals.  We wandered, crossing bridges, turning down narrower and narrower alleys.  Finally, we realized we were lost and it was nearly the time we were to meet back in the piazza.  Giggling, we approached a group of darkly handsome young men - Italian gods to this little group of teenage Canadian girls.  Clutching each other, we prodded one another forward until one of our group stepped out and boldly said "Piazza di San Marco?"  The men, together, gave us directions in fast and, to us, unintelligible Italian.  Realizing that their directions were useless to us, they laughed and gestured for us to follow them and they led us back to the piazza, filled with Italian life.

The dome on Saint Mark's Basilica.
Sadly, that was the end of my first visit to Venice.  Once we arrived back in the piazza, we were put back in the water taxi and taken out to a magnificent white cruise ship - the SS Nevasa - that would be our home for the next 2 1/2 weeks.

A cultural aside: Italy is filled with piazzas, from tiny open spaces ringed with tall stone houses in Sicilian mountain towns to wide, impressive public squares surrounded by cafes and bars where Italians and tourists sit doing nothing but watching people and discussing the state of the world.  Since this first Italian exploration, I have visited many piazze and have come to realize how vitally important they are to the life of the Italian people.  It is here that they make daily connections with their neighbours, that they share gossip and find support from each other and celebrate the wonderful place they call home.  In my travels, apart from Piazza di San Marco, one other piazza in particular stands out for me.  In 2010, we visited a small town in Sicily, Polizzi Generosa.  To get to this town we had to follow a winding mountain road until we reached this tiny community hanging off the side of the mountain, looking over the Sicilian countryside.  Our first night there, along with many of the residents of Polizzi Generosa, we walked out to the piazza in the evening.  

Nick and I on the piazza in Polizzi Generosa.

What met us was the most spectacular view we had yet seen.  The sun was setting and we were awed by the amazing sight.  The piazza quite literally hung over the edge of the cliff.  When we stood at the precipice it was as if we were standing in the sky, watching the sun go down.  I will never forget that moment.  

The sunset over Polizzi Generosa.

Once the sun had set, and the twinkling lights were turned on around the piazza, we were befriended by a local man, both deaf and mute, and so our language came in gestures and pictures drawn on scraps of paper.  He walked us back to our hotel, shook our hands and kissed us on both cheeks.  We never knew his name, and he didn't know ours but it didn't matter.  For that short moment, we knew each other.

Our new, if brief, friendship.