So, this week is going to be a little different. As many know in weeks prior I have been sharing my grandfather’s stories from his time in Europe during the Second World War.
For the most part I have completed his stories during the war. Actually, I should clarify, I have concluded all the stories I wish to share through this medium.
With just two weeks left in the CreComm season, I am going to fast forward my grandfather’s stories 60 plus years.
In 2009, after completing most of my research, I took off over the Atlantic. What may surprise a few of you that have been following my writing this year, is that I took off not to follow my grandfather’s footsteps during the war, but to Sicily to find an Italian Second World War story.
After researching and reading so much about my grandfather, I needed to leave it behind for a while. I am just going to leave it at that. I told myself that I wanted to write a story about the Second World War and perhaps from watching too much Band of Brothers and too many Steven Spielberg films I got this idea that I should write a story about the American Paratroopers in Sicily in 1943.
It was a head scratcher, I had my grandfather’s story basically in its entirety, but I chose to abandon it for one I hadn’t found yet. I told myself this was what I needed to do.
The story was going to be some big romantic war time drama about brotherhood and nationalism. I look back now and kind of laugh at myself. What I realize is that I wanted to research and find stories in Sicily from the Second World War, much like what I did with my grandfather’s.
So, there I was researching, contacting local museums, and arranging my travel. I wrote and thought up characters, plot lines and treatments. I remember flying over the Atlantic on my way to Sicily, and instead of reading about Operation Husky, (the landing of the Americans in Sicily in July of 1943) I was reading about Ukraine, Stalin and my grandfather’s town of Nikopol. It was funny, as much as I tried I couldn’t put his stories aside. I told myself I had to, but I just couldn’t.
Then once I arrived, literally almost as soon as I arrived in Sicily, two things happened. Actually, I should clarify, I met two people.
I flew from Toronto to London, London to Rome, and Rome to Palermo, where I was going to stay overnight before starting my research in southern Sicily. This was where the Allies landed by air and sea in July 1943.
Today I am going to share one of those conversations…
I arrived in the Sicilian capital Palermo, groggy, on the third of May just after 12:30 am local time. I fumbled my way through customs and retrieving my luggage to find myself looking for a cab under the amber glow of street lamps. During my layover at Heathrow, in the comforts of the Air Canada lounge, I was able to book a hotel in Cinisi (just outside of Palermo). The hotel was right along the water, but the only problem was that it was 35 minutes away by car.
I approached a taxi driver to inquire about a price and was told a ‘hundred euros.’ I knew this was ridiculous and despite my grogginess, I remembered reading somewhere that Italians responded to passionate outbursts and distinct hand gestures. So I replied with an aggressive stamp of my foot down on the concrete landing outside the airport and then I swooped my hand across my brow and flicked my fingers in his direction.
A policeman who was passing by witnessed my outburst with the cab driver and butted in. Though I couldn’t understand the rolling exchange of insults, I did see the officer pointing continuously to the maple leaf stitched on my backpack. After about fifteen minutes of yelling, the police officer turned to me and in broken English said,
“I take you to hotel, kay?”
After thanking him, I had to chuckle at his use of ‘kay’ which reminded me of Manuel from ‘Faulty Towers’.
He introduced himself as Giuseppe and during the drive explained to me that he had ‘two brothers living in New York City’ and wanted to go visit and see the Knicks play. I laughed. He was a funny looking guy, probably a man in his forties, he had a fat round nose, chipmunk cheeks and egg shaped belly. During his argument with the cab driver he removed his hat, and I almost thought he was going to swat the cab driver, but instead he wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He had thinning salt and pepper hair.
Driving in the blackness of night he asked me what I was doing in Sicily and after telling him I was interested in the war years he got very excited and insisted that we go out for a few drinks before taking me to my hotel. At first I declined, but after insisting, he left me no choice.
“You like wine? Of course not a Canadian like you would like whisky; yes we will have whisky.” He said.
I was quite surprised that an Italian would be recommending whisky. I still have no recollection of where this bar was, I remember it being open-aired and smelling of salt, but anything beyond that is anyone’s guess. The bar was empty, just the bar tender behind the counter. He was an incredibly thin man with wispy gray hair and whisker like facial hairs. The bartender seemed to know the officer and they exchanged pleasantries before Giuseppe introduced me as ‘Mr. Canada.’ The bartender bowed and mumbled something before pouring us a drink.
The scotch was god awful, but Giuseppe was a very nice man who had many stories to share. At times I had to make up my own words to insert into his stories for his English wasn’t very good, but either way it was enjoyable.
“You- eh go to Trapani?” He asked when I told him my desired destination. I nodded and downed the glass that was in front of me… he then continued with his stories, in his broken english and trilling melodic accent,
“Trapani is eh- beautiful city. It has two things, yeah’ the fish and salt; thousands of years ago the Phonecians’ established the city and pulled land from sea, the salt fields. They created the porta in order for it to be a main trading porta for the Mediterranean peoples. Many people gathered there, speaking in many tongues and exchanged wine, jewels, spices, silk and even their women.” He paused laughing and gave me a wink.
After taking a sip of the glass of wine that he ordered with his glass of scotch (truly an odd combo) he continued, “It is a city of peoples and language, all very different, passionate, but different. They have only one thing in common, the sea.”
One might wonder as I sat there listening to this stranger ramble on about the love he had for his country, after traveling for over 24 hours, how I stayed awake? I think I was so far past tired that I just sat there like I was frozen in time, frozen in my thoughts, actions and desires, listening to every word he said…
“The greek’s called the city Drapane, which you have to understand means the…” he paused searching for the word, “the sickle… Because of a… city’s importance it has been invaded by many peoples: the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans, the Normans and the Spanish.”
The longer he spoke the better his English got, perhaps from a growing confidence in his own words or perhaps a combination of me being so tired and his accent fusing together that it allowed me to understand what he was saying.
Finally, after there was a large collection of empty glasses around the table, he leaned back in his stool, tapped his belly, yawned and nodded for us to get going. Arriving at my hotel Giuseppe carried my backpack into the lobby and insisted that he drive me to Trapani in the morning. With the thought of a bed and pillow now in reach and not wanting to argue with Giuseppe I agreed. Checking in was painless and I stumbled to my room. I opened the door, dropped my bags and fell into the made bed…
The next day I met Giuseppe and his police car and we set off down the coast to the south western tip of Sicily- Trapani. The highways are always winding around jagged rocks and mountains, glimpses of the sea are somewhat inspiring and even more calming. After days of travel, and perhaps a few too many the night before, it was just what I needed. Giuseppe’s stories didn’t stop and were a nice narration to pictures of the red Sicilian earth, rolling vineyards and plentiful olive groves.
We arrived in Trapani just past noon. Giuseppe was right, Trapani is amazing. It is a beautiful little town. Despite it being ridiculously hot, I loved everything about the city. It has one main street where cars honk, scooters zip and couples walk the street window shopping. This street is known as Via Farrigelli. Farrigelli is always a stone’s throw away from the ocean and during the day the water keeps the air moist and sweet. In the evening the ocean breeze teases your nose with fresh jasmine. People are passionate, but friendly and for the most part are always willing to help someone, even if they don’t speak the same language. The city is shaped like a long narrow triangle that hugs the ocean. The widest portion is at the base of a mountain that guards the city from the north. The point of the triangle is located at the sea. It is then divided into two portions; old and the new. The oldest is near the port and the newest is higher up. One knows when they have reached the old part of the city, because the streets become narrow and are crafted in cobblestone.
Like Giuseppe mentioned the town is overlooked by a mountain, Mount Erice (ee –reechi). The mountain is coloured in various shades of red with bits of green surrounding the outer edges. A top the mountain are the remnants of an old gothic fortress from when the Germanic tribes of the third and fourth centuries ruled Sicily. Every inhabiting people since have made their own modifications, making the appearance very unique. There seems to be architecture from every European power, all on one mountain. The narrow, winding cobblestone streets are magical and with fog moving through them it adds a hint of the supernatural. The views atop the mountain are spectacular on their own, but on the east side of the mountain fog and cloud cover comes in constantly from the coast and adds to its prowess.
Every mental snapshot seemed perfect, and the pictures were continuous. That calming effect I felt in Giuseppe’s police car was also felt atop the mountain. Looking over such beauty, I felt that I could see past my many questions. I felt silly, for in instant I thought I understood how I was to live my life. Overlooking the Sicilian valley I had an illusion of clarity. Following my strolls I returned to the winding side streets of the seaside city. After returning to sea level I felt embarrassed for everything I felt atop the mountain.
I jotted down some notes.
I feel like the mountain, has a mythical power, because when I began the dissent back to sea level the answers to my questions began to fade and soon that clarity was no longer in memory.
On my second day in the city I returned to my journal and tried to scribble down some notes of the city’s structure and some surrounding thoughts, but nothing came, it was like trying to draw water from a stone.
I must admit I am a little overwhelmed by the history here, it is ageless. This task I have thrown upon myself feels unattainable. There are so many different periods and peoples that overlap with the city; it makes it difficult to understand what my purpose is.
Before Giuseppe left he suggested that I speak to some restaurant owners along the harbor, he said some are family owned and very old and their might be someone still living from the time period I said I was looking for. After thanking him for everything, he gave me a big hug and kissed me on both cheeks.
I was alone again. After settling in my hostel, I read more of my Ukrainian history book and told myself that I would follow Giuseppe’s advice and mingle with some locals and see where that would get me…