Sitting at my kitchen table at my Sinagra home, I open the window on the balcony from the kitchen, which peers out onto a dirty grey wall.
The wall is of another house which I can see directly in front of my window. There is another balcony jetting out of the smaller place, basically three rooms, one on top of the other. It makes me feel claustrophobic, yet I’m thankful that my house isn’t as small as my neighbour’s, and without realising, Sinagra’s voice seeps inside me.
Olivia, a Romanian woman, lives in this house in front of my kitchen window. She continually battles cheeky neighbourhood children who play practical jokes on her—riding their bicycles in front of her front door, which opens directly out into a courtyard.
Next door, an abandoned house is infested by nesting pigeons who make their homes between the bricks in the old 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, who must think I’m nesting too. I don’t open the window as I feel she is invading my privacy and me hers. I may be surrounded, but I can retreat into my personal space, yet I realise if I take one step outside.
I’m inevitably on public display. I am overcome by the murmurs of those around me, which subtly become a part of my internal voice.
On the other side of the shutters, Olivia is chatting with another neighbour. Her heavy Romanian accent is easily mixing with the local dialect. She is a robust woman who lives with a Sinagrese man who left his wife after twenty-five years of marriage. Until recently, they were in Milan but moved here a few months ago, into his mother’s house, while renovating an old house in the countryside.
The elderly mother comes from Milan during the summer 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.
I hear her story after observing the grey-haired daughter reading a Braille book with thick pages, caressing the words like someone spreading their hands out on a keyboard.
I always assumed she was born blind, but I’m touched by the truth of how she lost her sight as a child. She fell, hitting her head and developed an infection, which, left untreated, caused her to lose sight in both eyes.
Our other neighbours are an elderly couple, Leone and Tindara, whose front door opens out into the street next to ours.
Sometimes I hear Tindara singing at the top of her voice and slightly off-key as she busts out her mats from her balcony onto the street. Her singing voice is not unlike her speaking voice, loud and brash.
I often hear Tindara’s voice a mile away gossiping loudly with another neighbour, fretting over her newborn grandson or calling her husband. She used to be a housekeeper to Baron Salleo, who lived in the grand mansion a little way down our street. I can easily imagine her 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. He enjoys an occasional walk in the piazza or taking a drive in his three-wheeled Ape trolley truck.
The truck is one of those strange now vintage mini vehicles invented in the two post-world wars to avoid paying motor registration. Since the Ape has two back wheels and one big front wheel with little more than a handlebar to steer, they can hardly be classified as a car, so owners pay a lot less for insurance.
When not driving around on his Ape, Leone often sits outside his front door on a fragile straw chair, which supports his girth surprisingly well and talks to the people who walk by.
When it is hot, he will poke his head out of his burrow to catch a cool breeze in the summer. When no one walks by, Leone sits and sits and sits, staring into space, perhaps entering into a deep state of meditation.
I often hear Tindara’s brash voice as she gossips away at her front door with her gossiping partner. A softly spoken, kind-faced woman called Marianna lives on the other side of the street, directly across from our front door.
Marianna continually grooms the plants that have slowly taken over the balconies of her multiple storey homes, transforming them into an exotic treehouse. It is lovely but requires a tremendous amount of work, and she is continuously sweeping, trimming and watering.
Her husband is a neatly groomed and polite man. He used to be a chef but is now retired and leads the everyday leisurely retirement life in Sicily, which includes walking and talking in the square 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 studies music at the conservatory of Messina. He also tells me how he’s been to Australia, and he often asked me where exactly I was from.
He stayed in Perth and vaguely remembered the central suburbs. He stopped asking after I mentioned the names of new suburbs he didn’t recognise.
As I write about my neighbours, I smile at myself as I, too, am being gradually sucked into this intricate web of communal gossip.
I have picked up bits and pieces of information from overheard conversations and chinwags to create the tapestry of personalities around me.
Perhaps I am becoming Sicilian after all.