I live 40km from an active volcano. At the moment, as you’ve probably seen in the news, Etna’s being particularly lively, spewing out pieces of volcanic rock measuring inches across, as well as clouds of ash that have reached as far as Calabria. However, much as the news of Etna’s eruptions gets sold dramatically around the world, here it rarely impinges on day-to-day life much at all. Most of the time, the first thing I know about any eruptions is reading news reports on Facebook. I’d rather that than the alternative of having to exit, followed by lava, though.
The other day there was rare physical evidence of Etna’s current eruption, in the form of a pink dust coating all the cars and buildings in the city. The sky was an ugly, yellowish-grey colour, and Etna herself was hidden in greasy-looking black cloud. As I walked through town it started to rain. I cursed my luck – it’s a half-hour walk to the school where I’m currently substituting and I still had to get home again after classes. I put my head down and walked faster, arriving at school before the rain started in earnest.
In the break between classes the heavens opened. A crack of thunder shook every pane of glass in the school, making one class scream and setting off all the local car alarms. Rain poured down as a solid wall of water – when it rains here, it does so with intent. Idly I wondered how waterproof my boots were and then forgot about the weather while I introduced myself to a new class in preparation for taking over as their teacher for three weeks.
Having finished for the day, I wandered home, pleased that the rain had by now done its worst and was merely dripping from the sky half-heartedly. As I got further from the designer chic of Corso Italia and closer to the centro storico, more and more shops were shuttered up. I rolled my inward metaphorical eyes at the chancers who’d seen a rainstorm as an excuse to knock off early.
Little did I know.
As I passed my favourite local bar, Città Vecchia, I saw that the chairs and tables which usually sit outside had been moved and a lone barman was sweeping the outside area. A car was sitting in the middle of the road, engine running, as the driver talked to a man on the pavement. I dodged around them, passing behind the man on the pavement. I didn’t realise he was talking to me until his tone changed. “Do you understand, signora?” he asked, with a hectoring edge to his voice. I put my head down and kept walking. Having not heard the start of the sentence, I had no intention of getting into conversation with him. There are times on the streets of Catania when it’s better to pretend to be deaf than to get drawn into potential trouble.
Picking up my pace, I squelched my way through the soggy cardboard boxes which were coating the streets of the open air market. Stepping into a large puddle that I hadn’t seen in the gloom I found out that my boots were waterproof after all. Good to know as I picked my way – not always successfully – around the inevitable lakes filling every gutter. This is Sicily. When it rains, the streets flood because the drains can’t cope. It’s just what happens.
When I got in, Clem popped her head out of her bedroom, where she was battling the early stages of flu. “You’re back! Did you get caught in the water?” I laughed as I put the kettle on. “Yeah, a bit, but the rain’s not so bad now.” She looked at me as if expecting something more. I looked back, wondering what I’d misunderstood this time. (It happens a lot.) “Sorry. What?” She looked at me, eyes bright with excitement – or maybe fever – and told me that there were stories all over Facebook about the rain. “Via Etnea was a river! Still, you’re home now, so everything’s OK.” She disappeared back to her sickbed, coughing as she went.
I finished making my cup of tea.
In these days of mobile phone and iPad video cameras, everyone’s a filmmaker. Sitting in my room, stufa cranked up high, I fell into a rabbit hole of pictures and videos. They showed an hour in Catania that overshadowed the gorgeous lightshows that Etna’s currently putting on, by virtue of being so much more immediate. One clip showed chairs and heavy, waterlogged planters from (I think) Prestipino Cafe, at the top north-east corner of Piazza Duomo, being washed across the square by the water and ending up by La Fontana Amenano at the diagonally opposite, south-west corner. At La Pescheria, where the torrent of water pouring down Via Etnea met the bloated underground river Amenano as it burst up to the surface, one picture showed a car submerged in muddy water to halfway up the side windows. In another film, a scooter was buffeted down a narrow street, bouncing off cars as it passed like a pooh-stick getting caught in the rushes.
As I scrolled through my newsfeed looking at all the first-hand accounts and viewpoints I felt a pang that I’d missed out on seeing it for myself. But then I looked at pictures of damaged roads and buildings and read a story of a man being taken to hospital with multiple injuries after being caught by the water and realised that – in this case – that was fine.