My Journey to Italy – Part 3

My beautiful picture

First posted June 23, 2012.

We left Venice after boarding a luxury cruise ship – the SS Nevasa.  As I mentioned in my first post, we were not to be amongst the first class passengers, nor the second class either.  In fact, we were placed in what had once been steerage, when this ship was used to transport passengers across the Atlantic from Britain to North America.  I slept in a room with 32 bunks and 31 other teenage girls.

This is not a complaint in anyway.  We had sufficient bathrooms, the food was really very good, and the crew treated us well.

Our itinerary took us to some truly remarkable places – Corfu, Tunis, Carthage, Gibralter, Vigo – but after Venice, I seriously doubted I would find such a magical place again.  That is, until we docked in Messina.  As our ship entered the port of Messina on the northeast corner of Sicily, it passed, as do all ships, a tall column topped with a gilt statue of the Little Holy Mother.  She towered over the harbour and I only had the slightest inkling that she was likely the Madonna.  Yet, as I looked up at her, I found myself wondering if she was there not just to welcome us, but to protect us.  Beneath the column was a sentence, unintelligible not only to me but to all of the Canadian teens hanging onto the rails watching her as we passed.  The words below the column stated in Latin: “Vos Et Ipsam Civitatem Benedicimus.”  Later I learned that the words meant, “We bless you and the city” but at the time their incomprehensibility simply added to the mystery that Italy had already presented to me.

Once off the ship, our ears were battered with a louder and seemingly wilder sounding Italian.  Today, I realize that what I was hearing was Sicilian and not Italian.  It is rougher, grown from the land that supports Sicilians and feeds the rest of Italy.  It is an ancient language – some believe it is the oldest of the Romance languages – and it is a tie that hold all Sicilians to their roots, no matter where in the world they have landed.  As Venice was refined and perhaps a little arrogant, Messina was chaotic and proud with emotions smouldering at the surface.  There was no denying the pride in the voices and the walk of the men as they strode by us, calling to each other.  The Arabic blood infused from invasions centuries before was still evident in the colouring of the faces that looked at us suspiciously.

Sicilians have a reputation of being suspicious – particularly those who live inland on their ancient island.  Even my husband’s family was a little suspicious of me at first.  But, in my experience, it takes very little to get beyond the suspicion and to be welcomed enthusiastically – especially if you appreciate their island as much as they do.

We climbed aboard a bus that took us past the crowded streets and busy traffic of Messina.  Soon we were driving along winding coastal roads.  Gasps and short screams could be heard up and down the bus as our driver took these hairpin turns at breakneck speed, leaving us certain that we would be toppling over a cliff edge before we could reach our destination – Taormina to the south.  And if we managed to survive the cliffs, certainly Etna, steam rising ominously to our right, would erupt and we would have to try to outrun a lava flow, or the mafia would jump out with machine guns to rob us of our few lira.  This land seemed to be a place full of danger and excitement.  Yet somehow, the driver managed to safely navigate the roads, Etna behaved herself for that moment at least, and Marlin Brando and his mafioso managed to leave this group of Canadian school kids alone.

We were taken on a walking tour of Taormina and saw quite a bit of the tourist town, but what I remember best was the Greek amphitheatre.  Grade eight English focused on mythology and before I left Canada for this adventure, I had been reading Greek myths in class.  As we walked through the opening that took us into the amphitheatre, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that those gods that were now familiar to me; Zeus, Hera, Apollo, amongst others, were following me as I walked around the dusty ruins.

Suddenly, it was not only Zeus, Hera and Apollo that were walking with me – it was Eros too.  Just ahead of me only a few steps, sat a group of dark haired, olive skinned young men, grinning wildly at us – suspicion completely missing from their faces.  Although I was only 13, I looked much older – closer to 18.  My teenage heart beat wildly as they waved me over.  Genevieve, my best friend was walking beside me.  I grabbed her hand for support and then boldly approached them.

My beautiful picture

They pointed at my camera, making picture taking motions and then pointing at themselves.  They wanted their picture taken.  They were raucous and friendly and soon, a large group of Canadian girls had joined Genevieve and me and a mass group photo was organized.

My beautiful picture

I found myself sitting next to the one I had quickly deemed the most handsome.  He pointed to his chest and said “Franco”, encouraging me to pronounce it after him.  Unable to say the trilled “R”, he laughed at my pronunciation.  Pointing at me, I answered his unspoken question with a simple “Diane”.  “Ah,” he responded, “Deanna,” and I laughed as well.  Our attention was taken by a call to say “Cheese!” and we turned away from each other.  Once the picture had been taken, our guide told us to return to the bus, it was time to make our way back to Messina.  As I started to follow the crowd, Franco grabbed my hand and closed my fist around a sharp piece of paper.  Then he waved with a quick “Ciao!” and he was gone.  On the bus, I examined the piece of paper – it was a photograph – a small head shot – and on the back he had written, ‘Franco Vitale’ followed by an address in Palermo. He was a tourist as well.  That was it.  My 13-year-old heart was smitten.  I kept that photo under my pillow for the rest of the trip, and dreamed of the day that I had met Franco.

What happened with Franco?  When I eventually returned to Canada, I begged one of my school friends to ask her mother to help me write a letter to him in Italian.  She very kindly did – twice – and then she became a little tired, I think, of this smitten teenage friend of her daughter.  I tried to write in English, he tried to write in Italian, but, unable to understand each other’s letters, eventually we stopped writing.  Wherever Franco Vitale is today, I wish him well.  He is probably close to 60 now.  I was already well taken with Italy, but because of him it is Sicily that I associate with romance and not the more common places such as Rome or Florence or Venice.  And that is an association that I think my Sicilian husband appreciates today.

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Post script:

After my initial post, I went on to Youtube and found a video of another SS Nevasa school trip.  It is from 1966, a few years before mine, but it really catches the feeling of being on the ship so, here it is….

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