I left Sicily just before Easter, when there were stalls on every corner selling plaited palm fronds ready for Palm Sunday. At first I was sad to be missing Easter in Italy – it’s much more of a big deal here than in England – but it’s best shared with friends or family and most of my friends here are just as displaced as I am. Going to England and celebrating my niece’s birthday along with doing a traditional Easter egg hunt (it’s what Jesus would have wanted) was, on balance, a more than fine substitute for eating roast lamb in the mountains and wearing meat hats.
At the train station, a toddler stands up on a metal bench and waves at the man sitting with his back to her. “Ciao!” He smiles but doesn’t turn around. She tries again and this time he grins and responds. They ‘ciao’ back and forth for a minute until her grandmother gets back from having a cigarette outside. She pulls fearsome faces and hectors her granddaughter over nothing in particular, in that way that many older Italians do with small children. The toddler’s father picks his daughter up and takes her for a walk, away from la nonna. The girl grizzles.
As little as three years ago, when I travelled by sleeper train from Puglia to the UK, a guard used to come around and put down the beds for you. Not any more – it’s all self-service nowadays. There’s one guard and he’s run ragged checking everyone’s tickets and handing out blankets and drinks. There wouldn’t be time to put down the beds as well.
Tonight the guard is short and round with steel grey curls and half-moon glasses. I momentarily nonplus him by showing him an e-ticket on my phone, rather than a printed document and he looks over his specs at me. “Ooh, hang on. Have you got a piece of paper?” I shake my head, thinking he’s going to scold me, but instead he bundles out of the cabin. “You don’t? Not to worry; I’ll get one.” He marches off down the corridor and returns a moment later brandishing paper and pen. I start to dictate the ticket code. “WB2 …” He protests, laughing, at the speed. “Hang on a mo!” I slow down and he winks in appreciation before asking me for my seat number. When I tell him, my pronunciation goes screwy and he repeats it back with a twinkle. I say it again – correctly this time – and he grins, then holds out his hand. “Documenti?” I hand over my passport. He settles in for a chat. “So you’re going to Rome, hey? What wonderful things are you doing there?” I tell him I’m going to England to visit my family and he gives me a cheeky look over his glasses. “Better here, if you ask me. Warmer!”
7.30 the next morning. It’s Monday, it’s raining and there’s a camp as a row of tents cashier at the coach transfer office in Rome. He tuts and gives me attitude over the fact that I haven’t printed my ticket out. “There are internet points ALL OVER Rome.” I retort that I’m from Catania. “Non importa,” he volleys back, with an eyeroll. The sass is just for show: he checks my name on the computer and hands over my boarding pass. Having seen my name, though, he switches to English to give me lip. “My manager isn’t here but next time you’ll have to buy a new ticket.” I match him eyeroll for eyeroll, saying “Grazie” with worldweary ennui as I turn away. He gets the last word with a singsong ‘prego’, but I feel I acquitted myself well given the hour and that I haven’t yet had coffee.
A man in swimming trunks, with the taut muscles and deep tan that come from being out on the beach at half past seven every morning, stands on the beach. Unaware or uncaring of the train going past he basks in the early morning sunlight, drinking in its warmth like a lizard. Nearby, folded blue and white beach umbrellas flanked with white plastic sun-loungers wait for less iron-like customers to arrive and open them up to the sunshine.
Sleepy tourists in brightly coloured non-iron clothes drag wheeled suitcases through the tiny town square as the sun turns the oil-smooth sea behind them to gleaming gold. A woman in a red top shakes out a dull green sheet and hangs it over the balcony rail to dry in the early morning sunshine. A mountain of black rubbish bags sits in the parking area of the apartment block below. Not by the bins, but right in the centre. Is it rubbish day or a protest? If the second, it’s a very orderly one, with each fat bag tied at its neck and piled neatly on top of others fastened the same.
Elegant white-blossomed almond trees rise above punchy lemons with shiny green leaves and bright yellow fruits. Surrounding both there are squat, silvery-grey olive trees, and in the olive grove there’s a baby-blue mini-castle, complete with pastel yellow crenellations. It’s one storey high, and only looks big enough to have a single room inside, but a Sicilian farmer’s cantina is his castello, as the saying doesn’t go.
Nearby, the olives and lemons split to form another grove, empty except for a carpet of calla lilies growing in the shade of a single pine tree. On the other side of the tracks, in somebody’s garden, a naked plastic doll with sun-bleached curls hangs by a rope from an iron pole, like some kind of macabre voodoo scarecrow.
Etna Etna Etna. All along this coast you can see her, although she looks different depending on where you are. From the north-east she seems longer and lower, with her vents clearly defined, like a collection of separate hills rather than one volcano. As you get closer to Catania she comes together and grows upwards, showing off her true height. Wherever you see her from, though, her head is wreathed in a halo of puffy cloud and her shoulders are covered in a light dusting of white snow.
Most of all, for me, seeing her tells me that I’m home again.