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The view from the tip of the Milazzo peninsula

Arriving late in the evening on the ferry from Calabria, we went in the darkness north of Messina, looking for a cheap hotel and found a campground (28 Euro), sleeping a bit fitfully on the too soft inflatable mattress, a group of Italians talking loudly into the night until Marcella barked “silenzio” and they quieted, resuming after some minutes at a lower level before finally going to sleep.  In the morning we moved along to Milazzo, a beach town on a thin peninsula jutting out from the Sicilian northeast corner.  I was promptly deluded, the squalid mess I’d recalled from my first visit to this island, back in 1978, when I went to the Taormina film festival, arriving by air in Catania and going on the new autostrada up the coast to Goethe’s now-ruined fabled town – in large part thanks to his tourist notice back in 18 whatever it was, it now crawls with Germans and others, whose wealth has built up the adjacent slopes with hotels and second home villas in the sun, and imposed the tacky regime of mass tourism. Even back in 1978 the sense of despoilation was heavy.

Terrace in lovely piazza in MilazzoGreek ruins ruined

Milazzo is entered through a large oil refinery and tank farm, which now deeply mars the view (and I would guess depending on the wind direction, the air) from its harbor.  We drove on to the tip of the peninsula, a parking lot perched high above the sea with a dazzling view to the north, and with a few pizzarias gracing it, with a mess of commercial billboards destroying a once beautiful place – a reality repeated often in Sicily and Italy in general.  In an effort to start, with a somewhat desultory feeling about it, I got the HD camera out, set it on its lovely if heavy Sachtler tripod – actually it’s the pan head that’s heavy, it’s carbon fiber legs are light – and executed a shot, once again demonstrating to myself how difficult it is to do a smooth 360 degree hand-pushed pan.  I did a few attempts, and we packed up.

Driving on, along the northern coastline on the narrow 2-lane highway, in towns flanked with cars parked on sidewalks, double-parked or simply stopped for a café, a bit of conversation, leaving the way often impassable by two cars.  Trucks often were stalled, awaiting the arrival of drivers amid a cacophany of horns and shouting.  Nothing in the least unusual about this, normal (southern) Italian behavior.  We then drove inland going steeply upward twisting roads to several of the myriad of small towns perched high above, the residue of centuries of social learning which pushed the population upward to defensive positions, however difficult it must have been to haul everything without machinery to these places, and then to live there, far from water and food sources.  Centuries of such life bred a narrow tribalism expressed today in the squints of suspicion directed toward we passing tourists.  Our passage went by roads suitable only for one way, with foliage spilling over the asphalt, one of which ended in gravel which finally led to another paved road toward the coast.

Looking for a hotel, we passed another town, Tindari, with a huge building perched on a promontory, a shrine to a local “black Madonna” but recently, 1800 something, constructed.  Below it were the remnants of a Greek temple, completely hidden now by a half-finished museum with a tacky sculpture in its little plaza next to a sprawling parking lot – the Greeks suffering the same insults as I’d seen at Mt Rushmore in South Dakota – imbecile Disneyfication for the tourist hordes.

My spirits diminishing, I told Marcella I thought whatever film I’d imagined for Sicily was a chimera, that the Sicily of my imagination did not exist or could not be filmed.  Instead a squalid wreckage of beach towns crammed with vacation families, an endless jam of cars, sprawling newly constructed second homes creeping up the steep mountain sides.  It seems the entire coast is now burdened with this happy-time spread of vacation apartments and homes, the visit “al mare” taking on the same heavy-handed obligatory nature as the Italian passegiata.

Having visited Sicily now a number of times (6 it seems), I knew only too well of the contemporary reality, but somehow in my mind I imagined other images, and as well perhaps an easier way to make them.  And now, confronted with the ugly reality, in which nearly all things recent or contemporary are thoughtless and grim, and most things old are now either encrusted with Disneyesque embellishments, the seemingly mandatory touches for mass tourism, or have simply been bulldozed over or left abandoned to crumble, my invented images faltered, and with them, my energies.  Shall I instead film this squalor?  Something in me resists, as it has of late regarding other things – there is more than enough squalor in this world and to add to it, even by way of critique, grates against my soul.  Seoul has thus far defeated me this way, and here in Sicily, I seem to sense another such defeat.

The night of August 4th, running out of light, searching for a hotel, a B&B or an agri-tourismo place, we drove far up the steep sides of the mountains out of Gioiosa Marea, another beach town, and found a place asking 115 Euro for the night.  We retreated back to town, checking one B&B, filled, then went to another, also filled and asking 80 Euro. But the owner, a talkative fellow, told Marcella of a hotel on the edge of town, a bit run-down, and a bit, perhaps, weird.  Once I prompted the end of talking, we went to check it out, its dilapidated sign minus the vertical on the T in “hotel.”  Its front door opened to a lobby we entered and waited many minutes while the man at the desk talked to a woman on the telephone who seemed to want every particular of the train schedule, dates she could book a room and so on.  Time allowed us to glance around into the lobby where a flickering TV set droned amidst a scatter of old and ill-kept furniture, newspapers, and an old woman, who vaguely acknowledged our presence, standing a minute using a crutch, walking towards us before retreating back into the phosphorescent gloom of the lobby. Finally the man ended the conversation on the phone, and quickly informed us there was indeed a room, 40 Euro.  There were in fact lots of rooms, though perhaps one was occupied by a young man who exited as we talked.  The man took us to see the room, up several floors, an old place with a mustiness suggesting disuse.  A dining room had the smell of mold, a torn mattress was draped over a table, and a general look of abandonment and disuse set the tone.  We checked in and Marcella had a long conversation with the deskman, who seems in his late 50’s.  It turned out he was the son of the old woman, and in the next  morning also the old man, sitting in the lobby. He’d been an engineer, traveled around the world much, and unmarried, as his parents had aged and could not run the hotel any more, and his siblings were married, it became his responsibility to take over, though he said he hated it.  The hotel makes that clear – a building slowly crumbling, the interior clean but musty, the garden space in back now rusted and fallen apart like the dining room.  The father is 89, and the mother must be something similar, and on our in and out jaunts from the hotel they were to be found usually comatose in the entrance lobby, heads leaned over in slumber, the television sending its phosphor glow into the strange mess of things.  I can’t imagine many customers coming in, taking a look, and staying.  As the man from the B&B had told Marcella, the place has a sense of ghostliness.  Funky ghostliness, a Sicilian Bates Hotel.  As it were, it’s my kind of place, far preferable to a real hotel.  Hotel Calabria, though there’s no sign to indicate the name.  A rusted blue white “Albergo” graces the roof line, floating against the blue Sicilian sky.

In the morning we took a walk, looking for a café for cornetto and cappuccino, and wandered around town a bit – nothing really of note except perhaps the lack of anything of note.  A railroad line blocks the town from the beach, a few restaurants and cafes, a small downtown of stores and listless locals, and not much else.  Lunch-time we passed a few places that seemed as abandoned as our hotel, and looking further found down a few levels of the terraced town-layout, a pizzeria-ristorante, which turned out to have some of its many tables filled.   We sat adjacent to a long table filled it seemed with family – a bunch of young kids, two of whom we’d seen when trying to get money from an ATM (another story).  At the far end were two men, each in their late forties or so, each with a wife by their side.  One was large, as in very fat, and accompanied by another man, both of them seeming to be locals.  The other man, dark hair slicked back, arms muscled in black t-shirt, sitting opposite spoke animatedly and loudly, with a flourish of hand and facial gestures, his whole body shifting for effect.  After a bit it seemed clear this was some kind of Mafioso theater, wherein the louder man seemed to be straining to show off, standing periodically to gesture further, pacing about, gesturing with a fork waving like a conductor’s baton in his hand, and then quickly returning to the table for a handshake, a high-five, or to lift a glass of wine in toast.  His wife, a blonde gone far to seed, with silicone puffed ridiculous red lips, sat immersed in her cell phone, and what we pieced together were the kids – the blonde girl and her boyfriend we’d seen in the bank, and a younger boy who had an odd bandage on his head, as did another young kid – were the offspring of this couple, and they spoke not Italian, but English.  So did the seedy blonde.  I’d guess the man was of London or other UK Mafioso lineage, perhaps from this area, and the dinner was some kind of business get-together.  The fat one spoke, but not often, and utterly without the broad Soprano-style I-am-Italo-Mafia self-important gesturing which the man with the English-speaking wife and kids did.   Perhaps, as I have always felt of Italo-American directors (Scorcese, DiPalma, Coppola), those who have wandered afar feel a necessity to “act out” in a manner Italian, and in doing so turn themselves into caricatures.  Certainly this man was full of himself and his role as a heavy, as one could read it in the kids, who seemed ordinary alienated skate-border middle-class teens somehow caught up in a bad TV show with a crazy Dad and ditzy Mom playing out roles in some Anglicized version of the Sopranos.

Beneath the surface though one could read a dog-sniffs-dog bit of sizing-up, each man in his own way, demonstrating who was in fact top-dog.  An air of strained competitiveness pushed the greasy black-haired one to pull out all the stops in his repertoire, which in fact made him very aggravating.  The fat one sat, commenting now and then, commiserating with his wife who seemed to hang on every word spoken.  If my general rule of thumb is right, whatever dog-piss show was going on, it was won by the fat guy, though slick-hair would naturally claim the opposite.

I found this show quiet fascinating, and Marcella kept cautioning me that it was too obvious I was looking, though I thought the main actors were so into their show they were oblivious to any spectators.  Inwardly I fantasized how surprised they would be if someone like me were to suddenly stand, heat in hand, and blow them away.  Quel surprise!

Later that day we had a swim in the sea after a wobbly walk over the meanly pebbled beach. Coaxing a reluctant Marcella in – she was intimidated by the modest breaking waves – I was pleased to see her head emerge from the water with a huge and lovely smile.  In childhood she’d been taught fear – of water, and of many things – and only with me had she learned to swim and enjoy it. But the early training still takes hold until she gets in and then she loves it. The undertow was strong, but the water temperature sublime.  We stayed another night, and next morning wandered slowly on, further west along the coast, the way pocked with newly exploded once-quiet fishing villages turned into bustling and tacky vacation beach towns, and finally turned inland, driving small roads through the huge and near vacant agricultural hinterland of mountains, almost every peak sparkling with the lights of a cubist townscape, castle, duomo, each town weighted with its own history and tribal customs.

Sticking to small statale roads, two-laners, winding up and down the landscape, there were many rough patches, apparently owing to an unusually rainy winter which had made for wash-outs and many rumpled places where the road foundation had shifted.  I suspect a certain mafia hand in the condition, some corner cutting (on EU money, for sure) on the original construction, and now, waddyaknow, new money for repairs.  In Sicily anything of substance that is built passes through family hands.

We arrived – a bit thanks to the knotty state of the roads – in Enna a bit late, failing to find any agri-turismo or hotels along the way, and looked for one there.  We found a charming B&B in the center of town, a place recently renovated and done with a certain elan, with a nice guy running it showing us the rooms, breakfast place, and awaiting word if some reserved guests were arriving or not.  Alas they were, so we went to bassa Enna, in the area below, and finally found a nice B&B in a recently built somewhat elegant gated house.

Cathedral of Enna

Enna has a long and bloody history – from a Greek temple to Ceres, the goddess of grain, circa BC on through a range of pre-Christian era battles and massacres, and then into a long sequence of conquests by the Romans, Normans, Arabs, and so on, all reflective of Sicily’s history, and to be seen in the amalgam of architectural styles, and I would imagine in the rich dialect, nearly incomprehensible to Marcella.  Like other Sicilian cities, much of it seems on the edge of collapse, the gray colorless stucco pealing from the sides of buildings revealing a cheap brick and fill, and a chaotic spill of quick high-rise dormitory buildings flanking the centro storico. Enna, high on its defensive ledge, was little different, even the main street showing the ravages of decay.  It was bombed, as were many other places in Sicily, in world war two, and it would seem had been in a slide towards a humiliating poverty for 300 years.  It did have a striking duomo, about which Marcella learned a lot by tagging along on a guided tour voluntarily given by a very bright 19 year old, Angelo, who had taught himself all the history and was quite effective in delivering it all to his entourage of women.  Afterwards, he guided us to the castello and offered suggestions on where to eat.  Offered a little money he declined, though finally accepted five Euro from the group.

Caretaker of another Enna church, with an interesting story I cannot tell

The next day, we moved onto Palermo, passing enroute Cefalu, crammed with more tourists than anyone sane would care to be anywhere near.  But Italians like to do this, sharing a beach with tens of thousands only an elbow away.  It tells you something about them – social conformity, insecurity, the need to be constantly talking for fear of…?  Cefalu is very “popular” and “fashionable.”

The beach at Cefalu

But it does have a beautiful cathedral, if one now so inundated with tourists that visiting it requires a high degree of socializing intent; a pensive, quiet, private time is more or less out of the question.

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