Just as I sit down to write this post, Chotto-ma starts playing the harmonica: blowing in, sucking out. The harmonica takes the air from her lungs, with all its haphazardness, and turns it into the music of a hundred breezes. And it makes me think that if Sicily were to be an instrument, this is what it would be. A harmonica. You can’t blow it wrong.
It sits in the cupped palm of the Mediterranean, its notes rising from low to high in one long breath. If you let your eyes travel to the very end, to the curved line of the horizon where the sea spoons the sky, everything is an unimaginable blue. As your sight travels closer, the colour lightens in calm strips – from aquamarine to turquoise to emerald to a pale jade, and finally swishing around your ankles as clear as truth.
Walk out of the shifting sand under the sea, onto the warm beach, and the land starts to rise. A wild, earthy road appears, overgrown with sun-crackled greens. The road begins to bend around, hugging the lift of the land. It curves and rises, curves and rises. Sand changes to mountains. The green changes too; deepens. Yellow houses appear, peeking through a shock of bougainvillea. Magenta bougainvillea, with that turquoise sea dropping behind it: it makes you shake your head, this impossible beauty.
As your car winds up farther, forests grow. Walls of wildflowers – yellow, pink, purple and white – begin to tunnel your way. Clouds appear. They come down, touch. Without warning, you come to a turn in the road. This is the turn you’re supposed to take. It leads to a tiny commune called Gibilmanna, high in the Madonie mountains. But this turn, as it turns out, is not really a turn at all. It is an almighty drop. Sheer. Nearly straight down. In the fading light, it is much like Alice’s rabbit hole. D inches the car in, Chotto-ma and I hang by our seatbelts – three perpendicular people. The road hurtles down and down, until it finally stops at a huge iron gate. Casa Bianca, the sign says.
That was our home for eight days. A cottage set in acres of land, which we had all to ourselves. The house sat in the middle of a woodland in the throes of its Sicilian spring – louder than any springtime I’ve ever seen – with an orchard in front and a stream running through. It had a wisteria-covered porch under which a bread-oven nestled in the wall. Around the house, bees buzzed drunk on purple snapdragons. Wild fennel grew. Shiny green lizards darted about the courtyard. Wherever we walked, the grass was smothered in little purple flowers. Not an inch empty. All living, breathing. Birds singing. Things blooming, bursting. Unfurling, curling you around its little finger.
There’s nothing quite like Sicily in May.
It gave us all it had – days of scorching sun, of mist and fog, a day of mountain-rain and a day that hovered in between. In the mornings, we ate outside, with the sun in our eyes and wine in our glasses. Pasta muddled on our plates, bowls of cherries the darkest red, cold melon wrapped in slivers of ham, swordfish fresh off the sea.
In the evening, D would chop wood, Chotto-ma would carry them in and we would light a fire. Our neighbours – a lovely German lady and her Italian husband – lent us two warm jumpers for the evenings. They also brought us fresh, warm eggs from their chickens when we woke up that first morning.
And for me, this is what set Sicily apart: its people. Over the years, we’ve come to know Italy well; I can now piece together some words in Italian for the most basic communication (almost all food-related). Yet, we’ve never been drenched with the kind of human warmth that Sicilians bring to even the smallest conversations. Gruff men with big hearts and a booming voice. Women who peeked from behind clotheslines to wave. People who stopped their chores to ruffle Chotto-ma’s hair – ciao bambini! We made friends – in eight short days; with people who stopped short of English, but not much else.
There was a lone restaurant (cum alimentari) in Gibilmanna called Spaccio Colombo run by three lovely old men and a dog called Margo. We would go there for coffee and cakes every evening, pizza on Sunday night. Chotto-ma would play with Margo, D and I would chat with the men (neither of whom knew English, so you can imagine our conversations). On the day before we left, they unlocked the restaurant just for us, even though they’re closed on Wednesdays. They invited us in for coffees, and refused to let us pay.
So many little things we won’t forget. So many things we will have to go back for. This was the first time, Chotto-ma cried when packing her suitcase – large, soundless tears; plop plop plop. Apart from her friend Margo, what she said she was sad to leave were the flowers that grew on the mountainside. So she brought back a flower pressed in the pages of her story book to remind us all of this island which we couldn’t fit into our suitcase.
[In the next post: I’ll show you the town and villages in Sicily that we visited and loved. And the food, the food, the food that we ate and ate and ate. Arrivederci!]