Sitting at my kitchen table at Sinagra I open the shutters of the small balcony at the back of our town house which looks out onto a dirty grey wall and then onto another balcony of a much smaller house which is basically three rooms one on top of the other. I feel immediately constricted, yet I’m thankful that my house isn’t as small as my back neighbor’s.
I often see the young Romanian lady called Olivia who lives in this house in front of my kitchen window. She is constantly battling cheeky neighborhood children who play practical jokes on her and ride their bicycles in front of her front door, which opens directly onto a little court-yard.
On the right hand side of my kitchen, out of my line of sight, there is an abandoned house which is infested by pigeons that make nests in the spaces left in between the wide bricks of the wall. Every morning when I go to the bathroom I hear their amorous cooing. If I open the window I see a nesting bird looking back at me. She must think I’m nesting too. I don’t open the window often as I feel she is invading my privacy and I hers. I may be surrounded, but I close the door and retreat into my own personal space. I know if I take one step outside I’m inevitably on public display.
I often work in my kitchen as it has the best light. Opening the balcony shutters, the world around me creeps into my house. There is the constant nesting sounds of the pigeons and chirping of other birds which have migrated, like me, to Sinagra. I am gradually overcome by the murmurs of those around me which subtly show themselves to me as their existence becomes a part of me too.
Occasionally I hear the young Romanian girl across from me who chats with another neighbor with her heavy Romanian accent. She is slowly learning a strange mixture of Sicilian dialect and Italian. She is a tall, robust girl who is living with a Sinagrese who left his wife after twenty-five years of marriage. They were living in Milan until recently and moved here a few months ago, into her mother-in-law’s house, while renovating another old house in the countryside.
Usually during the summer the husband’s elderly mother comes from Milan to stay in her house at Sinagra together with Lucia, her blind daughter. Lucia navigates the stairs with surprising ease and sits on a chair for most of the day, crocheting, or doing some other work with her hands.
One day, after observing the grey haired daughter reading a Braille book with thick scrap-book pages, holding it upside down and reading the words like someone spreading their hands out on a key board, I heard her story. I always assumed she was born blind but I’m touched by the truth that when she was a child, she fell, hitting her head, and then developed an infection, which, left untreated, caused her to lose the sight in both eyes.
Beside us there is an elderly pensioner couple Leone and Tindara, whose front door is next door to ours on the narrow street. Sometimes I hear Tindara singing at the top of her voice and slightly off-key as she dusts out her carpet mats. Her singing voice is not unlike her speaking voice, loud and brash.
I can hear her a mile away gossiping loudly with another neighbor, or fretting over her new-born grandson or calling her husband. She used to be a maid to the Baron Salleo who lived in the grand mansion a little way down our street. I can easily imagine her in a little maid’s outfit fussing over the Baron’s domestic affairs.
Leone, Tindara’s husband is a rotund, gruff-voiced man . He is a dawdler who is spending his retirement pottering around not doing much other than enjoying an occasional walk in the piazza, or taking a drive in his three-wheeled Ape trolley truck. In the summer he often sits outside his front door on a fragile straw chair, which supports his girth surprisingly well and talks to the people who go by. When no one walks by he just sits and sits and sits, staring into space. Perhaps he enters an intense state of meditation.
I often hear Tindara’s brash voice as she natters away at her front door with her gossiping partner, a softly spoken, kind-faced lady called Marianna who lives on the other side of Via Umberto Primo, directly across from our front door. Marianna is constantly grooming the plants which have slowly taken over the balconies of her home, transforming it into an exotic tree house. It is lovely, but requires a tremendous amount of work and she is constantly sweeping, trimming and watering.
Marianna’s husband is always neatly groomed and polite. He used to be a chef, but is now retired, leading a leisurely life, walking in the piazza and fussing over his grandchildren. Occasionally I bump into him as he passes my house. We sometimes chat and he proudly tells me about his grandson who plays the piano and who has recently been accepted into the music conservatory at Messina. He also tells me how he’s been to Australia and he used to often ask me where exactly I was from. He stayed in Perth and vaguely remembers the main suburbs, but he stopped asking after I mentioned the names of new suburbs he didn’t recognise.
Here everyone knows everyone else, not only in a superficial sense. They have known each other for generations. They recognise people’s personal histories which are played out before this intimate community. As I write about my neighbors I smile at myself as I realise that I have been gradually sucked into this tight and intricate web of communal gossip. I have picked up bits and pieces of information from overheard conversations and chin wags to create the tapestry of personalities around me. Perhaps I am becoming Sicilian after all.