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Sturdy Suspicion and Acts of Kindness: A Very Sicilian Paradox

No matter how many times I have been here, I am never prepared for Sicily. I never seem to pack the proper baggage–intellectual or otherwise. Something is always missing. This island set between Africa and Italy is a world of dazzling physical extremes; and one of such textured human differences that sometimes no two people seem to share anything in common–not language, not physical features, not even food. Sometimes Sicily is as dark and inaccessible as its grottoes–hiding ancient mysteries. Sometimes it is as open and inviting as its millennial salt flats–running endlessly to the horizon. Sicily, the home of Archimedes, Bellini, Lampedusa, Pirandello, Quasimodo, and Theocritus, magnifies and exaggerates every human emotion and gift, and then either hides them or puts them on display.

Arriving by air in Sicily’s capital, Palermo, is not like arriving in any other European capital. The physical world that greets the visitor is sudden and abrupt. Approaching from the sea after having flown hours over a featureless ocean, the visitor is greeted by steep serrated, treeless cliffs that form the forbidding backdrop of the Punta Raisa airport. I feel as if I have landed in the Andean foothills and not in a Mediterranean capital. However, as unexpected as the landscape may seem, it is not the physical space that I am unprepared for. Nor is it the language. I speak Italian; and while I need time to adjust to the cadences, sounds, and other nuances of Sicilian Italian, I can read the Airport signs and move comfortably through its precincts. Neither am I unprepared for the physical appearance of the people here. I have spent most of my adult life in the Metro New York area surrounded by three generations of Sicilians. I am not uncomfortable with people whose eyes always return my gaze.

At the car rental agency dealing with the manager, I remembered why I am never prepared for this country. Our routine paper work concluded, I asked him which road would be the best to get to my first destination, the western port city of Trápani. Had I been anywhere else in Italy–Florence, Milan, Rome, or Venice–the question would have been the pretext for a long, friendly dissertation on the roads, drivers, drivers’ habits, and gas prices; punctuated with highly opinionated commentary on restaurants, women, traffic, scenery, and some limited directions in response to my question; and then a final nod to my query by suggesting that “E poi, si puo chiedere(And then, you can ask.) Here in Sicily, the manager told me there were two roads to Trápani. He didn’t tell me how to reach them from the Airport other than to say that I should follow the signs; and then decide for myself which was best. He added nothing more. I initialed the rental agreement and asked how to find the car. He said that there were two exit doors from the Airport, and that the car rental lot was clearly indicated. I remembered now why I was never prepared for Sicily–this paradoxical island that has suffered more than 20 centuries of invasion, warfare, and conquest; and where acts of taciturn mistrustfulness of outsiders are still part of the armor worn by natives to protect themselves.

I took the secondary route to Trápani avoiding the autostrada. I was more curious about the countryside than I was anxious to arrive quickly. I reached my destination without difficulty. Parking the practical and very small Opal Corsé was not easy. The street in the area where I was staying was never intended for automobiles. It was as narrow as the stairways of some of the buildings that lined the streets. There were No Parking signs prominently displayed, yet cars were packed together like seeds in a pomegranate on both sides of this cramped alley. I looked up and down the vico.This auto thoroughfare was too small to be a strada (street). There were other signs nearby contradicting the No Parking admonition. Not wanting my rental car towed, I looked around for help. I noticed a heavyset man standing in a backlit doorway watching my automotive acrobatics. A sign above him indicated that he was in a private social club. I approached and politely greeted him, asking whether he thought I could park my rental car there. He told me he didn’t know. When I asked him about the cars already parked there, he said he didn’t know why they were parked there. I decided to leave the car parked. I then showed him the number of the building I was looking for on the Corso, Trápani’ s main street, and asked if it were to the right or left from where we were standing and how far it was. He told me he didn’t know and that I’d just have to try myself. The street and the building were around the corner. The next morning my car as well as the others were parked where I they had been left by the No Parking sign.

After four days in Trápani, I arose early on the fifth morning to pay my bill and take the autotraghetto(car ferry)to the outlying Egadi Islands to continue my work. When I presented my credit car, the desk clerk told me that the hotel no longer accepted credit cards. Because I had not expected to pay cash, I did not have sufficient euros to settle my account. I offered to pay in U. S. dollars, but he said that the hotel did not permit payment in American dollars. My work in the Egadis was to begin that afternoon. It was December 24th. Already most businesses had closed for Christmas. I knew that no Banks were open and that I would have trouble finding a standalone ATM. I asked if I might speak with the owner who I had previously been introduced to by the clerk on my arrival at the Hotel; and who I knew lived in the hotel. She appeared promptly even though it was 6:10 a.m. Donna Margherita listened quietly. Then she offered a Sicilian solution. First I had better take the 6:45 autotraghetto since the next one would not leave for another two days. Then since she felt I had a trusting face, she would permit me to leave her hotel without paying my not inconsiderable bill. From our earlier conversation, Donna Margherita knew I had to return though Trápani to continue on to my next research project in the central Sicilian city of Grottascalda. She said when I returned to Trápani, I should stop at the hotel and repay her. The decision made, she reached into her pocketbook and handed me 150 Euros (about $200). She insisted I take the money, turned and walked imperiously to the elevator. Acts of such extravagant generosity and trust added to equal acts of taciturn mistrustfulness of outsiders are the daily paradox of this Island.

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