Travel /

Living Under Mt. Etna: The Volcano People

Living Under Mt. Etna

A mountain that spits fire. 

In the end, this is a volcano: a mountain that, sometimes, spits out something hot. 

Standing and looking at Etna has something mystical. She is the main figure in the mysticism of Sicily. You wake up in the morning, you make your coffee and go out on the balcony to look at the black mountain from which a little cloud comes out, reminiscent of a child’s drawing of a volcano.

You wonder when you will see lava spewing out of those open cones; it’s something you can’t imagine, you have to actually see it.

The first time I saw Etna erupt was also the very first time I had seen any volcano erupt. 

It was a year with the most frequent eruptions in a long, long time. I watched these fire fountains in the distance rise and fall again and again. It happened so slowly, slow motion set on the clock of normal life. 

“Well, actually this is nothing,” people tell me while I still can’t believe fire is coming out of a mountain. 

“Let’s hope it doesn’t rain sand.” What do you mean it doesn’t rain sand???

So I asked myself: how do the inhabitants of the towns and cities near Etna live? What is that fire-breathing mountain to them? 

It is the mistress of their most mystical side, that’s what it is. 

As the lava rose high and slowly, very slowly… with my mouth still open I looked down the street. Some kids were strolling along on their bikes listlessly, shirtless. They didn’t seem to care that a volcano was erupting in front of them. “It’s absolutely normal for us.” Well, if a very much awake volcano is something ordinary then I don’t know the meaning of ordinary at all.

In the mountains it snows, in the villages and towns at the foot of Etna it rains ash and lapilli. It is the same but opposite.  Black and white, the absolute and the earthly. The mountain is ethereal, the volcano firmly planted on the ground. The restaurants and shelters along the road leading to one of the viewpoints are amazing oxymorons. With names like: “Snow-Fire”.

“Yes, but the snow melts, ash and lapilli remain,” My friend Simone from Giarre tells me at night, as we climb up to see an eruption, surrounded by lava rocks that look like those of the moon. 

The people of Etna never know where it will rain sand, where the ash will fall. They feel relieved when word spreads from their nearby relatives that their town fell victim this time. When it happens, a black cloud darkens the sky and falls lighter than rain, blackening the roads. 

Etna, for those who live in those areas, is a lady. La Signora Etna. Sometimes she is calm and others she is angry. Let’s hope she doesn’t get angry, the volcano people think. Etna is a big matron who knows how to be clement or furious. A neighbor made of rock and fire. 

And her neighbors, people, say things like, “It’s a good thing she vented, so we’re okay.” Or, “Let’s hope she doesn’t get mad this week.” Nino the barber explained to me, in a rather scientific way, that Mrs. Etna gets angry when there is an earthquake in the sea. Then she shakes herself up and lashes out. I see no reason why this cannot be true.

The people of Etna live with this fire-breathing mountain. She is there, they are home. Sometimes they look at her absentmindedly, maybe while they’re taking a swim, and sometimes they don’t give her a look at all. But they feel her. And when they don’t feel her, Mrs. Etna raises her voice. 

Like one morning, at five o’clock. 

The windows began to shake. A dull, deafening noise like a monster underwater is palpable. It’s like seeing sound waves. 

Finally the volcano people remember Mrs. Etna and come out to their balconies. Frightened and fascinated by the dull and powerful noise; by a mountain that spits fire furiously.

“Did you hear Etna last night?”

“No, not even bombs can wake me up.”

“The windows were shaking, I was quite scared. But it was so beautiful”

“Oh, ok. Today coffee is on you.”