Sicily at the end of August is a fiery ball of heat, humidity, mosquitoes and desert winds whipping up from Africa. We arrive in Sicily in the final month of Summer; my husband decides to take a couple more weeks off work; to rest and get over jet lag.
Italy shuts down at this time of year, as most people take their annual vacations. So it is pointless to return to work when most offices are closed anyway. We head down to the beach to relax and find relief from the heat.
Sitting on the rough, stony Sicilian beach, I soak up the exotic backdrop. It feels unfamiliar to find myself at the seaside in August, the Australian Summer not starting until November, the whole shore seems distorted.
This isn’t a beach; it is a rock mine, full of large pebbles, boulders and blocks of concrete dropped along the coast to create artificial barriers between the shoreline and the eroding sea.
You can’t dive into the water without putting yourself in danger of severe concussion or spinal injuries; endless craggy boulders are skulking under the water.
We’ve come down to the beach with a large collective group of in-laws, friends, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces, and children. All the kids jump into the water without sunscreen. The sun doesn’t seem to be so harsh here.
Here in Sicily, you can easily stay out for a few hours and not burn to a crisp, unlike in Australia, where a few minutes of the extra sun gives you guaranteed sunburn. I guess Italy is far away enough from the hole in the ozone layer to worry about the risk of melanoma.
All my female companions are in bikinis. I am in a whole piece bathing costume complete with short pants to cover myself from the sun and hide my flabby stomach.
It’s strange to see so many women in bikinis. Usually, those I’ve seen wearing a two-piece bathing suit have the figure to pull it off, and everyone thinks I’m timid.
Italians hold their right to a seaside holiday as dearly as their right to vote. It is a sacred privilege. Those who have left Sicily to work in large industrial cities like Milan and Turin return every Summer for their obligatory beach time.
Those who live in Sicily don’t work very hard during the year. At least by European or Australian standards, relax and spend summers by the sea as rigorously as those who fully deserve a restful holiday.
Beach-going is exceptionally fashionable, as it was once a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes their turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our small isolated strip of the Sicilian coast, some people have convinced themselves the world is watching them.
Women are dressed in seductively draped sarongs, strategically exposed tattoos, the latest bug eye-shaped fashion sunglasses and occasionally freshly styled hair and makeup. Everyone is ready to roast their abundance in the Siculu sunshine.
The company on the beach is easygoing, and I try to soak up the heat and acclimatise myself to my new home. My husband and I haven’t talked about when we’ll go back to Australia, and for now, I’m resolved to do my utmost to get used to living here.
Trying to be social and fit into the beach-going routine of these Sicilians, I lie on a towel under one of the many beach umbrellas. As everyone strips down to our bathing suits, I want to dive into the water and have a swim. Still, it’s not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings-on at the beach and the local gossip.
After a bit, I decide I’ve had enough and dive under the water surfing a few meters further out from the group. As I pull my head up, they wave and whistle out to me; I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way again with a leisurely breaststroke to reassure everyone I’m fine and I want to swim.
The others are surprised at how well I move in the water, and everyone said they thought I’d drowned when they didn’t see me.
A collective sigh of relief is made as I promise not to duck dive under the water or to swim out too far out into the calmest sea I have ever seen.
I smile to myself as I recall my childhood of Australian summers at the local pool that had made me a good swimmer in Sicily. Yet, I always came dead last in any school swimming race in Australia.
The difference strikes me even in the sea. Here it is warm, calm and shallow. The colour, too, contrasts what I’m used to; it’s a dark aquamarine that gives it a sinister quality.
I’m used to seeing clear blue water and constant waves of the open ocean. The mountains taper towards the coast before reaching a slight stretch of abandoned orchards that meet the grey stone shoreline.
In the water, I lie on my back floating and let the motion of the gentle waves take away the building tension of my body, closing my eyes, the splashing sound fills my head. I gently breathe in the relaxing salty air of these end of summer days.
I lie out in the sun out of the water to dry off. The head gossip comes and sits by me, not so much out of friendliness as a curiosity. Until now, she has mostly ignored me, convinced that I speak little Italian like most of the others. I notice she is fidgety, as if she is dying to say something to me. She strikes up a conversation, and I do my best not to stare at her teeth.
She asks me about my family in Australia. I give her the standard responses, short and polite. Satisfied by the information, she pauses as if thinking about what to say next and quips:
“I bet your mother is crying her eyes out right now.”
I stupidly say, “Of course,” not knowing how else to respond.
She jogs off before I can think of a sharper reply to her insensitive observation; obviously, that’s the dig she was dying to say to me. I find myself suddenly filled with a sense of dread, imagining my mother sitting in our kitchen back home weeping.
I fill my hand with rocks and squeeze them in my fist before throwing them into the water.
Looking at the imprints left on my pale hand, I begin to feel a little desperate and homesick.
Coming to live in Sicily was never my plan. I find myself here after a whirlwind affair, unsure how it all happened so quickly.