Calming sounds of sea birds in the distance and the salt evaporating in the air are intoxicating and soothing. Yet like life, its unpredictable forces can be enjoyed only in certain circumstances as its volatility is at times deadly.
To be Sicilian is to have a dramatically complicated and unconditionally constant relationship with the sea. For better and for worse there are no words, no expressions, nor any feelings that can encompass what it means to live your life near and be dependent on the celestial waters around Sicily.
Those that know its waters say that the sea has no memory. In many ways this is true. Its seeming endlessness beyond the horizon scares some hidden part in all of us. That inherent knowledge of it being “the great unknown”; a place that can swallow up anyone or anything at any given moment and erase them from history forever. Yet in the same vein, Sicily shows why this is false. Despite its unforgivingness and ability to withstand time, the sea has always provided more than what it has taken. Not just as a means of easy transportation for trade and travel, or as a source of food, but also where memories, living traditions, and acts of love are embedded and entangled in the intertwining motion of the restless surf.
I came to understand this unwavering relationship at Letojanni on Sicily’s eastern shore.
Sunglasses on, stretched out on the beach chair with a copy of “A Farewell to Arms” and a headache that some would call concerning, I could hear through the gentle waves crashing the vague yet familiar sounds of a Sicilian summer. Even though my eyes were closed, I felt the serene light pinch through the eastern end of my ombrellone little by little and warmly caress the edges of my face and neck. With it came the noises of life around me and an immediate cure for a wine hangover. The scratching of a rusty old lighter igniting a new cigarette, an attentive mother guiding her small children to be careful near the water, and the manager of the beach club yelling “sùbbitu” at his son from the opening at the bar stand… a frantic attempt to move more guest chairs so that window shopping patrons could face the sun without any inconvenience and not take their valuable seasonal business to the competing lido next door.
From the northern stretches of Liguria to the rocky outcrop of Pantelleria, there seems to be the same type of people at every lido in Italy. Island and mainland alike. Typically a multigenerational family running the place half full of semi-retired Italians and an obvious sprinkle of tall and pasty tourists from abroad. Yet my favorite group is usually what I’d call the neighborhood superstars. This particular lido in Sicily, like the thousands across Italy, was no different; one of those superstars grabbed my attention and changed how I viewed Sicily forever.
With my eyes still partially-closed and my mouth yearning for a few sips of an Aperol spritz, I mentally revisited what I had seen the past week like a highlight reel on the news. First approaching the unmistakable and iconic statue of the golden Madonna while taking the ferry across from Calabria. Driving the almost Formula-1 designed A20 autostrada through cavernous mountain tunnels between Messina and Palermo and stopping along the way in each town. Venturing to the gloomy almost desert-like emptiness around Etna’s lava fields. And of course, the saffron laden arancini the size of a small baby’s head. Yet, at that moment I wouldn’t understand nor could foresee that any of these experiences would have as much of a lasting impact on me as the next five minutes of interacting with this local did.
My mother reached over the small beach table that separated us and tapped my arm and said “hàs vist?” (“have you seen?”) in her dialetto. An encouraging and also semi demanding instruction so that I would open my eyes and look towards the seaside collectively with her and my father. There she was. Coming out of the breakers, stylish, and with her bounty. She was as Sicilian as can be – in spirit, attitude, and way of life. No, she was not Apollonia, nor whatever sensually elegant shy Siciliana with long disheveled hair and greyish green eyes you’re making up in your head.
There are few moments in life that you observe or meet somebody that leaves a lasting impression on you like this. Most of our daily existence is filled with continuous bland patterns of nearly meaningless interactions, yet from time to time we are blessed with a moment that causes what some would call an epiphany. Something that sticks with us despite the constant visual overstimulation of our timeline and computer screens. These moments mostly mean little as they unfold, until long after the fact when they signify an anchor. A stop in the road or a new trajectory in thinking, feeling, or even how we broadly live our lives.
Nearly 6 years later from when it was taken, I still go into the family room of my parents’ home, sit on the couch and look at a photograph in its album with curiosity and awe. I try to imagine what her story was and how she came to be. And with time, what has become of her today.
As I surveyed my mother on the lounge chair next to me I noticed she instantly smiled as it reminded her of her Nonna Angiolina. This woman was incredible. Fit, lively, and wearing a turquoise bikini that she’s most likely been sporting since Ferragosto of 1966, she came out of the sea with a fresh squid like a Marvel superhero.
This was completely contrary to the stereotypical Nonna most of us grew up with. Usually, a little adorable woman donning mostly black outfits with a short haircut, ample amount of jewelry, and pudgy fingers. A person that usually stayed away from entering the sea but could take everyday items from the garden and turn them into something a normal person would pay $100 for in a Midtown Manhattan restaurant. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that without even uttering a spoken word to this woman and sitting six meters away, my mother understood from the onset that she wasn’t doing this for herself, but rather for those she cared for dearly.
This selfless act showcased the inherent importance of family and the intertwining relationship between daily life, the sea, and overall happiness. It exhibited that to have a Nonna is to be privileged enough to have the entire world at your fingertips. A protector, staunch advocator, and personal Michelin star chef in one. The lengths that they will go to protect, feed, and nurture your growth is incomprehensible.
A love so deep and so genuine it’s the only thing that can rival the depths and power of the sea.
They, like an island, stand alone as the one thing those around them depend on. Making them the true gatekeepers of happiness, the true backbone of Italian culture, and the driving force for what is still good in the world.
And contrary to the ocean’s ability to wash away everything, this woman created a meaningful moment dictated by our converging worlds. Both of us without even knowing it at the time.
As she observed us sitting up on our lounge chairs smiling, she lowered the edges of her sunglasses and looked over with her soft and extremely proud eyes, and yelled “look how beautiful it is”. Moving her hands to explain its size and quality and later coming a bit closer to show us her treasure like a prized pig at a county fair. This kind of trophy, according to her, was caught at least two times a week. She would walk down the alley-like bougainvillea compacted streets of Letojanni and forage for squid near the rocks to feed her grandkids lunch. I assume she’d be just as happy every time this happened — knowing damn well that her work would nourish her family.
For Nonna’s, actions like putting yourself in some form of danger to find some of the freshest ingredients in the world for your grandchildren are instinctual. Something that goes without question or even thought. Something her mother did and something her ancestors have done for three thousand years or more.
Me on the other hand, as a grandson I had to think about it. I had to look back and remember my trip and reminisce about my childhood to see just what this unconditional act of familiar love meant. Not only for her grandkids, but as an example of the love affair those in Sicily have for the engulfing blue ‘thing’ that surrounds them daily. The thing that gives them life yet constantly reminds them of their isolation from Italy and beyond. A land in between — not quite Europe and not quite North Africa either.
Its existence, its flourishment in isolation is an ironically beautiful and fitting setting for an idyllic life full of love and at times tragedy. And even if nobody else on that beach remembers that day, even if her grandkids don’t think of it as special, I, a stranger thousands of miles away and many years removed, will always remember it. I’ll be able to keep its memory from washing back into the sea like many other moments, seconds, and years have for millennia.
I’ll envision her authentic smile, the one that matched the shiny mirror-like reflection coming from the water, or her walking off in the distance nonchalantly alone, without a worry in the world to go prepare lunch.
I still wonder about who she was and just how good that meal might have been. Years later I came up with a scenario in my head that she went home to pick fresh herbs from the terrace garden, diced some garlic, sauteed some tomatoes, and later poured a heavy drizzle of olive oil on top of her thinly cut squid. Meanwhile, thud after thud, you’d hear her grandkids run up the stairs of their building yelling “Nonna! Nonna!” throwing their book bags all over the place as if nothing else mattered. They ran with all their might, smiles genuine and unbreakable as they smelled that radiant perfume traveling all the way down the hallway from the kitchen…
But maybe that’s the beauty of it. Maybe never knowing what became of her and those meals keeps me on the edge like the many Sicilians looking across that big blue horizon never knowing what’s truly out there. Somewhat scared, yet feeling more comfortable than I’ve ever been before.
Come to think of it, I never even got her name.