I was standing outside the Palermo airport with my brother and sister, soaking in the scorching heat and the magnificent landscape. Sicily has such beauty to offer; from where I was standing, I could have taken any number of pictures that would have been postcard-worthy. I didn’t take any though, because my body was not yet used to the island’s desert climate. My siblings and I stepped back inside the airport, and found both my mom and my dad standing over the counter of a car rental agency, arguing with two clerks sitting inside the booth. The way I understood it, my parents and the clerks could not agree on the kind of van my parents had reserved online, even though my mother had written proof of their reservation. In another booth nearby, an older man was arguing with another clerk from another car rental company.
They were going back and forth in Sicilian dialect which, compared to the charming and melodious Italian spoken in Florence or Rome, sounded abrupt, guttural, and harsh. Sicilians are often stereotyped as headstrong, stubborn, and sly characters. The scene that followed turned out to be typical of the customer service we would encounter all over Sicily; both customer and clerk grew angry, and began swearing and threatening each other as they gesticulated wildly. Suddenly and quite surprisingly, they managed to come to an agreement. After we settled into our rental van, my dad, who is Sicilian by birth and not by temperament, took the wheel and we began our journey to Cattolica Eraclea, his native village.
Cattolica was the final destination of our three-week vacation in Italy, which we had started in late July, and the longest stop during our trip – a ten-day stay at my nonna’s. We had long promised nonna that we would visit her. Although my father had only lived in Cattolica until the age of six, his memories, however embellished and exaggerated, left me with a sense of wonder, awe, and excitement. Among his most picturesque descriptions was Cattolica’s fontana, which lay on the outskirts of the village. Before coming to Sicily, I had seen the majestic Fontana di Trevi in Rome, and I expected to see the same jaw-dropping beauty in the fontana in Cattolica.
When we finally arrived at the fontana, however, I found a spout sticking out of a rock. It looked more like a faucet than a fountain. A steady flow of water spilled into a dirty, algae-stained concrete basin. To me, it looked like a miniature swamp. The area surrounding the fountain was covered with garbage, as wasps whizzed by. I was confused and disappointed, but it was exactly as my father remembered it. He walked up to the fontana and took a sip. He invited me to do the same. I gathered up my courage and drank. To my amazement, the water tasted lighter, smoother, and purer than I had expected, probably because it came directly from the mountains. My father agreed that the fontana was not a pretty sight. His only explanation was that when you’re thirsty, it quenches your thirst. And then it hit me: where else could people get a cool drink in this desert climate? How else could farmers irrigate their crops? I realized that the fontana was more than a fountain, it was a source of life and a landmark. Every village had its own fontana. This was Cattolica’s, and every time we crossed it, I knew we were heading home.
Cattolica is surrounded by stunning mountains and acres of farmland. Everything about the village reminds you of the past; most of the people are elderly, and the houses are generally rundown, many of them abandoned. The pace of life is slower in Cattolica; there is always time to sit outside and chat leisurely with neighbours and strolling villagers. We noticed that a large flock of pigeons had made their home in one of the houses on our street.
At first I thought that village life in Cattolica was simple, dull, and predictable, but I soon realized that I was too quick to judge. At night, the village came to life as throngs of people took to the streets. Both young and old gathered in the piazza to mingle in the night air. Concerts and parades were frequent events that brought the entire village together. My nonna told us that this excitement only occurred during the summer, when people from far and wide came to visit family and friends in Cattolica. It helped this small village stay in contact with the rest of the world.
No matter how long we stayed in Cattolica though, our “otherness” was obvious. Only an outsider would go for a stroll in the blazing afternoon heat, or walk in the piazza wearing nylon shorts. Yet strangely, we did belong. Once, when my sister and I were walking to the market, we saw an elderly woman standing outside her front door, talking to a man in a pick-up truck. The woman, it turned out, was an old family friend and she knew who we were and that we were staying at my nonna’s house. She told the man in the pick-up about us. My sister and I had no idea who he was, but he asked us about our father. I told him his name was “Micu Scalia,” which is the short colloquial form of my dad’s full name, Domenico. “I, too, am a Scalia,” he answered casually. “Tell your father I send my best.” Another time, when I was exploring the town with my mom, we passed not one, but two small streets named after our family. My family has a long history in Cattolica which, like the town’s fontana, is enduring and resilient.
Alexander Scalia is currently studying towards his Bachelors of Arts in history at McGill University. Born and raised in Montreal, he proudly identifies with his Sicilian and Abruzzese heritage.