The arrival (Catania, August 2002)
Arriving at Catania airport, my husband and I are hit by the blistering heat of August in Sicily. We are two sweaty zombies after an eighteen-hour flight from Perth, Western Australia to Rome, followed by another hour from Rome to Catania. It is hotter than hell. Our clothes are wet and stick to our skins. The air is too scorching to breathe, and we have slept maybe half an hour during the entire trip. To add to our discomfort, we find no one at the airport to pick us up.
Our luggage is toppled onto two rickety trolleys, our suitcases have paunches like slouching pregnant ladies expecting triplets. Our bags are continually pulling at the fleeing carts and precariously balancing on top as we go to look for a payphone as our phones have no network.
Moving outside, we experience the real meaning of the word heat. Emerging from the weakly air-conditioned airport is like walking through a radioactive barrier into an atomic bomb explosion. Our tired bodies are vaporised.
Overwhelmed, I lean against the suitcases and glance at the confusion. Buses are off-loading endless tourists who are heaving baggage along the footpath. All are shuffling along in the check-in queues as Sicilian tour operators heave a sigh of relief in the background while pulling on their slimline cigarettes.
Suddenly alarmed by the number of people around me, I recall all the terrible stories I’d heard of people being robbed as they got off the plane at Catania airport. Desperately trying to keep myself alert. I clutch at my handbag and look with suspicion at the shiftless drivers standing by the taxi stand. Each one is simultaneously smoking a slimline cigarette and looking more like Mafiosi every moment.
I am terrified of losing my carefully packed suitcases. I had spent most of the night before our flight preparing and thinking about what else I could stuff into them. It is daunting to pack bags for a move overseas. What do you pack? I never particularly wanted to take my whole life to Sicily. I did want to bring useful things to help me adjust; make me less homesick and some items for our new house.
As a result of my fretful logic, one suitcase is full of clothes and another with books and CDs. The objects for the house have been sent beforehand with an international courier. They include two boxes of wedding gifts, more books, presents from friends and family. And a smattering of personal objects and other useful bits and pieces packed neatly into another shipped suitcase.
My fear of being mugged was expressed by a karmic twist later when we returned to Catania to collect our shipped boxes and suitcase from Australia. We found the two boxes, but the third bag never arrived. Even after three trips to Catania airport, endless phone calls, letters to Qantas, Alitalia and to ‘SAC’ (Società Aeroporto Catania), the department at Catania airport responsible for the baggage handling. According to the paperwork, the suitcase reached Rome and then disappeared.
The damages claim was buried deep in the convoluted Italian court system for many years. Our lawyer, who is an acquaintance of my husband, for a few years after constantly re-assured me, we would be compensated. Still, I had lost faith when no-one wanted to accept the blame.
I eventually got over my initial anger and then became quite philosophical about being robbed. Who knows, perhaps I’d get a surprise cheque in the mail from Alitalia paying damages. Unfortunately, this became nothing but a nostalgic dream as the Italian airline later declared bankruptcy.
At first, I was sad at losing so many meaningful objects which had disappeared. Still, in time, I realised they were only a part of the endless clutter that one pointlessly accumulates in life.
Everything seems hopeless in amongst the confusion of the Catania airport and construction site, with its lack of parking and general disorder. I finally spy my brother-in-law’s red Land Rover turning into the main entrance of the airport. He beeps, acknowledging our frantic waving.
We wait another twenty minutes as the Land Rover negotiates the obstacle course. A continuous circuit of traffic, cars on the side of the road, illegally parked tour buses, lazy traffic police and cement mixers blocking the street. Twenty minutes is a pretty good time on the Catania Fontanarossa Airport obstacle course.
The airport’s name sparks my curiosity, Fontanarossa or red fountain, what could this mean? Is it the name of an actual water fountain? Or is it a reference to an eruption of the nearby Mount Etna volcano, which often delays flights with spectacular ash blowing. Does the red fountain allude to the blood of a violent Mafia killing, the image sparking my imagination.
The trip from Catania to Sinagra, my new Sicilian small town home is two hours, which feels like an eternity to my tired, exhausted body. Dozing on and off, I blink, stupefied at the landscape before me.
Turning out of Catania airport, I roll down the window as the hot air blasts my face I feel the exhaustion weighing down ever more heavily on my body. Our overloaded Land Rover grinds its gears as I try to find my bearings in the haze created by changing hemispheres, countries, time zones and climates, all at the same time.
Within the middle of my bewilderment, I marvel at how I find myself moving to Sicily. How could I ever have imagined moving to Sicily? Sinagra is only a village I had briefly visited. Nearby to Raccuja in the countryside where my grandparents had lived out their childhood and adolescence hidden in the Nebrodi mountains deep in the province of Messina. It all seemed a terrible mistake.
Sinagra spills down the valley onto the riverbank of the Torrente di Naso and spreads like a resistant fungus in the rising damp of the marshy river bank. A little community, of some 3,000 souls like many others in Sicily in a haphazard collection of houses, composed by worn away stone edges and uneven angles, sprawled about like folds in an unmade bed. A small part of ancient Trinacria with its little undisturbed thousand-year history shaped by its, down to earth inhabitants who seem to be able to endure time itself by digging their roots ever deeper into this place, outlasting every hardship or misfortune.
Crawling up the ramp of the tangled autostrada out of Catania’s airport, the names written on the signs bring me back from my daydreams. We need to head for the exit marked Gela, a place I’ve never heard of, somewhere in the south of Sicily. We nearly miss the turnoff but for the quick reflexes of my brother-in-law. A sharp right turn saves us from doing another entire circuit around the lava coated metropolis of Catania.