Words from Sicily: Disorientation

The mountainous landscape in Sicily persistently challenges me. The boundless slopes disorient me; they dominate the horizon. When I go hiking down steep hillsides, I am constantly holding on for dear life, grappling white-knuckled onto the flimsiest blade of grass in my reach. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sprained my ankles or fallen’ head over arse’ as Australian’s colourfully and aptly say.

My native piece of Western Australia is very flat with a small range in the distance affectionately and condescendingly called the ‘Darling’ range (actually, it’s named after a rather crucial historical figure). So I am used to seeing more sky than land on the horizon. At times I feel a little stifled by all of these Sicilian peaks surrounding me. 

My sister in law, visiting Australia for the first time to be a bridesmaid at my wedding, innocently observed that there was more sky in Australia. Of course, without the mountains, there is more chance to see the horizon.

In Sicily, the landscape is still evolving before my very eyes. Every time I look, I notice something different. Entire houses leap out at me, old country mansions suddenly reveal themselves, and I’m constantly asking my husband: ‘Hey, has that always been there?’

Geologically this is true as Sicily is considered a very young country with Etna at its heart spurting out lava in regular eruptions and regular tremors and earthquakes, giving Sicily the nickname of the terra ballerina, the dancing land. 

The summits are so immense they defy description, and their appearance varies from day to day and season to season. All I do is select small pieces in front of me and struggle to come up with new ways of illustrating them with my words.

I’ve been living here for a good while now, and I really should be used to the mountains. I am still afraid of the one car width wide country roads carved out of the side of the rocks with only a flimsy guardrail, if anything at all, separating you from certain death. It is easy to imagine yourself plummeting down the precipice if you were to swerve or be hit by an upcoming vehicle. 

My Sicilian man still asks me:

‘Why are you still so afraid and uncertain?’

‘What happens if you meet another car?’ I ask.

He calmly answers: ‘Someone backs up and lets the other pass.’

Oh great, that means reversing down a mountain road and plummeting to my death backwards; at least I won’t see death head-on.

A friend of my husband fell down a mountain road. Well, not backwards or to his death, he swerved to avoid a truck along a curvy highland road near his house. His car leapt over the railing, and the driver door flung open (of course, he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as thick-headed Sicilians don’t do safety devices.)

He was thrown out of his four-wheel drive, falling through the branches of some chestnut trees and finally landing in the arms of some slight hazelnut boughs. His empty car rolled down to the bottom of an abandoned gully way, way, way below the road. Thank goodness he was so tough and a little pigheaded.

He was forced to save himself as his phone was resting with what was left of his car below. So our friend dusted himself off and climbed back to the road with blood pouring down his face from a thirty stitches wide gash on his scalp. The bits and pieces of his car were recovered and sold for spare parts days later.

My fear of mountains is continually being reinforced. Every year there is a new story to add to the accidents constantly hitting closer to home. My sister in law became another victim of the dangers of Sicilian roads. She met another car, shifted over to the side and the little fiat 500 she was driving slid over, rolling down a steep drop and throwing her out on its way down. She managed to call for help, then was airlifted to Messina and spent a month in hospital. It’s been many years, but I still get goosebumps when I pass the spot where she fell.