August 23, 2012
A Law unto Itself
The Facebook invitation reads: Long Hair In Three Stages Live + Various Artists Meet Susan Musgrave, Canadian novelist and poet from the turbulent life as author of Cargo of Orchids.
Long Hair in Three Stages is Giuseppe Iacobaci’s band; Giuseppe, my Sicilian translator. We met in Rome three years ago and I promised him that one day I would make a trip to see his Sicily, the one famous for being a law unto itself.
I book a flight to Catania – for the weekend, albeit a longish weekend. It gives me a kind of international jetsetter panache, being able to tell my friends, “Off to Sicily for the weekend, no idea what for.”
“It Will be Robbed by Criminals”
My brother Robert, my bodyguard, insists on coming with me. He’s seen The Godfather; a trip to Sicily is a lot more dangerous than our obligatory Saturday afternoon drive to Costco to buy Parmigiano-Reggiano, he says.
When we check in for our flight I am told that I won’t see my bag again until Catania. As we proceed through Immigration in Amsterdam, I begin to worry that I was given false information back in Vancouver, that my suitcase is sitting here in the Customs Hall, waiting for me to claim it.
“Sicily? Your bag will go to Rome, and then it will go to Catania where it will be robbed by criminals,” the immigration officer says, when I make further enquiries. His good humour reassures me. Surely, if I am to be a victim of crime he wouldn’t be laughing so uproariously at my expense?
Tans and Ties
We board our Alitalia flight to Rome. I listen to the pre-recorded safety announcements, which recommend that in the event of an emergency, women remove their “heil heel shoes”.
The waiting room for our flight to Catania is full of heavyset, bronzed men in suits. I, too, have seen The Godfather; I know tans with ties means trouble. My brother makes sure we board first so he can have his choice of seats, but when a "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero-from-the-Sopranos-lookalike stops in the aisle by our row, squints at his boarding pass, and frowns at my brother, I say, “This guy wants your seat, let him have it.”
The Man from Locauto
I spend my first hour in Sicily hanging around the baggage carousel, anxiously waiting for my suitcase to come down the belt. My brother knows me well enough not to say, “I told you so,” when my bag doesn’t show up.
We take a taxi to town and arrive at our hotel moments behind a bus tour of German holidaymakers. By the time they have checked in ahead of us, there are no rooms left at the “promotional rate.” In our Luxury room, I go on Facebook to ask my Friends what I should see while in Sicily. “Get out of Catania as quickly as possible,” is the first reply I receive.
Since we have just unpacked, leaving seems premature. First we need to eat; the concierge recommends a trattoria up the street and we sit down to dine at midnight in a room full of bronzed businessmen in suits. One of them looks us over, winks at me, and recommends the Croquette of Horse. Robert knows I don’t like to eat on an empty stomach, so orders a local wine, rich with tar from the volcanic soils around Mount Etna, and described on the menu as “the first violence that is transformed to a generous mother.”
Over a hair-of-the-dog champagne breakfast the next morning, we plan our itinerary. If we are to get out of Catania we will need a car: Robert has torn a coupon from an airline magazine with a special offer: 21 euros a day with unlimited mileage. When he calls the company they advise him that the correct price is 80 euros, the magazine offer probably “just a promotion.” It doesn’t take us long to figure out that pretty much everything in Sicily is negotiable.
I go online and book a car; we take a taxi back to the airport. The man at the Locauto desk looks up from his tabloid, taps on his keyboard, and indicates, in rapid Sicilian mixed with sign language, he has no cars for hire. I look over his shoulder to where rows of car keys hang on hooks. Probably just a promotion.
I check my watch: more than half our first day is shot. We spent thousands of dollars getting here and will probably spend our whole long weekend in Catania looking for things I have lost – my luggage, my car reservation, and after an hour of arguing in sign language with the man from Locauto, my mind. I am starting to think Locauto is just a money-laundering front. I am jet-lagged and hung-over and in no mood to suffer La Cosa Nostra gladly. I take my brother’s arm and head for the door.
“But what about your deposit?” my brother says. “You gave them your Visa number online.”
In this moment I am the embodiment of the old Sicilian proverb: “Revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.”
“We will kill them,” I say. Icily.
The man from Locauto tosses aside his tabloid, signals “momento”, and reaches for his telephone. He talks fast, taps on his keyboard and his printer springs to life, spitting out contracts. He is sweating, dodging the bullets he clearly sees spraying from my eyes. He shows me where to sign, plucks a set of keys off a hook, then leads us out into the parking lot under a blue, unappeasable sky.
We spend another day in Catania, waiting for my luggage to materialize. With Giuseppe’s help we get to know the city, especially the children’s shops where everything comes emblazoned with a Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck logo. All the children’s shops in Catania own Walt Disney franchises, one storeowner tells us. Giuseppe translates this as meaning “married to the mob.”
When my suitcase turns up I am a bit disappointed that it has not been robbed; it would have made a good story. Giuseppe tells me I needn’t have worried, that these days, in the international corruption rankings, Sicily ties with Saudi Arabia in 63rd place, a few places ahead of Colombia. Giuseppe and his friends prefer the new-fashioned way of doing business in Sicily, especially the way business is done in Catania. “In Palermo, the mob blows up your hotel; in Catania they buy it.”
We won’t have time to visit Palermo, a town so dangerous that it was under nightly curfew in the nineties, or the nearby Corleone, birthplace of the fictional Godfather, Don Vito Corleone. Even thirty years ago, Francis Ford Coppola thought the town too modern and developed to be used as a location (Giuseppe says the real Mafia wasn’t keen on Coppola's project, either). Savoca and Forza d'Agro, north of Catania, were chosen to stand in for the less photogenic, and contentious, Corleone.
We drive to Forza d'Agro, and then splurge on a Taormina hotel. “The monks got to Taormina early, so built their monastery on a cliff with super views across the Med and the east coast of Sicily,” I read on Trip Advisor. “But after 500 years or so the monk gig got old so the monastery was converted into a hotel in the 19th century.”
We hit the bar, set in an atmospheric monk-dining hall, and order a bottle of Lavicó, “silent in its shout.” I have difficulty falling asleep, and wish the monk in charge of soundproofing had given more thought to the walls. (Note to couple in suite next door: I really enjoyed listening to your fights about money. Seriously though, if four grand is an issue for you, stay somewhere else.) My brother doesn’t sleep well, either, and wakes in the morning to find a line of fresh fleabites – five in a row – across his toes.
We learn from the concierge that the Nazis appropriated San Domenico during the war and established it as their headquarters; the Allies consequently bombed the palace in 1943. The guest registry is so valuable that it is kept in a vault. I ask if Al Pacino stayed at San Domenico while he was filming The Godfather. “He stayed in Suite 353. The story goes that he adopted a dog, one that followed him home from the village. He kept it in his room until he went back to America. He took the dog with him.”
Before we begin our journey inland to Piazza Armerina we photograph my brother’s foot. We, too, stayed in Suite 353; I dub my brother’s itchy welts “celebrity fleabites,” convinced he has been bitten by the flea-ancestors of Al Pacino’s adopted mutt.
Wasting a Day in Biancavilla
We drive through lava fields and herds of vagrant cattle, past stone ruins, blood orange and lemon groves, and trees fragrant with almond blossoms, to Piazza Armerina, stopping at a gas station that sells Scotch whiskey and grappa in cream dispensers, for those in need of a restorative. We cruise through Bronte, “City of Pistachios” and get lost in Biancavilla. We learn later from Giuseppe that Biancavilla, his birthplace, is the heart of Mafia territory, where until recently the killing rate ran at two mob-ordered executions a week. It is definitely the one place you should try not to get lost in Sicily, he tells us, after the fact.
Lost in Translation
The night of the show, Giuseppe drives us through the back streets of Catania to a warehouse where the walls are covered with photographs inspired by my novel – dolls with nails hammered through their eyes, dolls in pint-sized coffins. “Blood and madness,” Giuseppe says. “Sicilians love this stuff.” He introduces me to the artists – young women who stand as high as my chin, even in their “heil heel boots.” The artists want to know about my family back home and I attempt to explain that my daughter has just had babies, twins, and that one of them is named after Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo.
Giuseppe and his band jump on stage and begin belting out the song they are most famous for, “I wanna be a lesbian.” It is hot, noisy, crowded, and smoky; after enduring as much as I can, I shout to my brother that I am going back to my hotel to go on Facebook. I don’t want to fraternize – life is too short, especially in Sicilian. I push my way to the door and am about to order a taxi, when Giuseppe’s manager grabs me and says I am wanted on stage.
From on high I look down to see the young women artists screaming, prostrating themselves at my feet. The section that has been chosen for me to read from my novel concerns the death penalty, and feels like a bit of a downer after the upbeat rock ‘n’ roll. Two writers from Catania step up to read the Sicilian translation. It is hard to hear their voices over the uproar from the crowd. I can’t think what I have done to deserve such accolades, but learn later, after I am whisked from the building, like Madonna, being mobbed by fans: the word has gotten out that I am Uma Thurman’s mother.
I once read that the time to really enjoy a European holiday is about three weeks after unpacking. “Three weeks ago I returned from Sicily,” I begin scribbling. “I can still remember feeling overcome with gratitude when my suitcase came flying down the luggage carousel to meet me.”
“Silent in Its Shout: A Long Weekend in Sicilia” won First Prize in the 7th
Annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, awarded in April 2012.
Susan Musgrave’s most recent collection, Origami Dove, was short-listed
for the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. A new novel, Given,
will be published in the fall of 2012. She lives on Haida Gwaii and teaches
poetry in the University of British Columbia’s Optional Residency MFA in
Creative Writing Programme.