It is 6:30 am on July 13th and we are in Sicily. Nick and I have quite fortunately landed in the home of Marilena and her mother, Giovanna. We met Marilena two years ago when we couchsurfed around Italy. In both Marilena and her mother I see the face of Sicily. At 85, Giovanna easily remembers the days of Mussolini – in fact, she and her late husband married on the same day Italy became a republic in 19??. Her olive skin blends with the colours that we see in the fields – amber, sienna, tan, gold – and the deep lines in her face are a road map of the history of her family just as the crags and cracks we see in the rock faces surrounding their village of Delia mark the history of this ancient land. Marilena, on the other hand, is everything that is modern Sicily. Tied inexorably to her family and anchored to her land, she holds the traditional in the core of her heart, yet she is much more than this. She is bright, well educated and funny. An architect by education, she, like so many others on this island, cannot find work in her chosen profession so, instead, she teaches school and works hard to inspire the children from the very difficult neighbourhood in which she finds her school in Catania. Her students face a multitude of issues that can be seen in many urban settings around the world – drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, incarcerated parents, abusive or neglectful or absent parents. But ask her about the change in the architecture of the Sicilian landscape and you will find her passion for architecture has not ebbed even a little.
The pigeons woke me this morning. Delia, like so many other towns and villages from here in the dry and golden south, to the green, mountains of the north, are suffering the economic downturn after years of rule by Berlusconi and the beginnings of austerity now imposed by Monti in the hopes to pull the country back into the prosperity of the past. Across the street from Marilena and Giovanna’s home stands an apartment building half finished. The structure is complete, yet on each floor above the little electronics shop on the ground floor, the windows have yet to have frame and glass installed and the doorways to nonexistent balconies are open and doorless. I can see into each floor – piles of bricks and rusted scaffolding poles lie in between heaps of pigeon droppings. In fact, the pigeons have made this building their home. Dozens of pigeons sit on the windowsills and strut across the floors. If people will not, or cannot, inhabit the building, there are many other residents of Delia who will.
Marilena and Giovanna have given us free reign of the extra apartment at the top of their townhouse. A marble staircase has taken us to the top floor. A kitchen (that we will not use as Giovanna and Marilena insist that we dine with them), bathroom and bedroom almost, but not quite complete this space. It is the terrazza that turns this simple apartment into a spectacular one. The front of the house, as I mentioned faces the village, with the empty building, pigeons, and traffic rushing through on its way to the next village or town, yet at the back, the terrazza overlooks miles of golden fields, green olive orchards and land blackened buy the fires farmers set after the crops are gathered in order to fertilize their fields with ash. The sun, at 6:30, is just rising and the land glows in the morning light. This home is a metaphor for all that is Sicily.
We rise and have breakfast with Marilena. Today we will drive to Cianciana (pronounced chan-chana), the mountain village where we have decided to focus our search for our Sicilian home. Marilena will join us as she has friends in the mountain village. After a few false starts (do we have the camera? map? GPS? notebook?) we are finally ready to leave. As we climb into the car, I thank the car-rental gods that we have a car with air conditioning. Yesterday the temperature hit 43 degrees, and even with the low humidity in this part of Sicily, 43 degrees is still freaking hot. I start the car, Nick sets the GPS, Marilena gets out her map and we pull out onto the road, one step closer to finding our house.