Sam Burcher dot com

Sam Burcher, news views and bits inbetween......

I visited Sicily many times between 2009 and 2015. Each time I felt compelled to write, not about the resplendent locations and history, but about my observations, feelings and hopes for the future.

Acireale

Waiting for the bus to leave Catania Central station, I shed my clothing down to a t shirt and roll up my jeans to just below my knees. I am suddenly struck by the fact that I started solo travelling at the age of 14. Nowhere as interesting as Sicily certainly, but a journey taken with the single-minded purpose of reaching an unknown destination.

The driver indicates that he is ready to depart by saying, “Ok lady.” I readjust my clothes and climb on board choosing a seat immediately behind the driver, because although curious and excited, I’m relying on the goodwill of strangers to help me find where I am staying. Because, I have now discovered, my phone is not working on Italian network. So, I can neither phone or text Gloria, my Airbnb host.  Amid my mental chaos a Franciscan nun sits down next to me. Her habit is made of stiff, grey buckram, impervious to any stain or weather. It spills out from her onto my seat. We are going all the way to Acireale together.

I consult my printed off Airbnb map. Only a couple of streets are named next to a vast expanse of blue sea. So, I ask the nun if she knows the Via Pacino. She shakes her head and  shows the bus driver my map. He calls merrily out of his window to people in the street,  "Via Pacino, Casa Gloria?” His enquiry is met with shrugs and smiles. He calls the mobile number printed on the sheet on his phone and Gloria answers. She is shopping in Catania about fifty minutes away, and where we have just come from. 

Getting off the bus in the centre of Acireale, I call Gloria from a coffee bar on the owner’s wife’s phone. She gives me a set of indistinct directions that I decide to ignore. I gather what I believe to be a more coherent set from an intelligent looking young man, who concludes his step-by-step guide with an, “enjoy your journey.”  And so I do, for the first part, wandering passed white domed churches and through neat parks and squares that lead on to a fish market that is just finished for the day. The streets are being brushed and washed down, a fishy smell is lingering.

Following the long road that I hope leads to Via Pacino, I see a good black and white stencil of Sid Vicious spray-painted on the wall. I stop to photograph it and text it to my lover back in London.  My phone still works on UK networks. The sequence of streets in my young man’s directions have not materialised. I  see a garage sprawling down a side street and speak to one of the mechanics there. We communicate perfectly, despite me not speaking any Sicilian or him any English. He phones Gloria and after a good long chat he eventually assures me that she will come and pick me up in ten minutes.

I wait at the corner of the street and shortly a car pulls up. I hope it’s Gloria. But when I approach, the woman waves me away, and minutes later enthusiastically greets a friend and hands her something. I feel rejected and alone. I move my position to the opposite side of the street and in the pelting afternoon heat an ice cream van arrives and parks on the corner. A shrill whistle blows over and over announcing its presence, a few people come down from the apartments above the garage and queue for a gelato. 

From my new vantage point on the kerb opposite, I decide that I don’t want sugar or crave it, because I rationalise, it’s my first day and I need to pace my eating. The ice-cream eaters stare at me piteously as I sit sweltering on my rucksack.  A negative voice goes off in my head, a the voice of ancient fear and trauma. Will I make it through the next few minutes of palpitations and paranoia, a stubborn residue of separation, self-denial and resistance? The negative voice gets louder and protests dispassionately that, “It’s her time.” Then another voice debates whether it’s her time in terms of me having had my allotted time here on earth or time for me to do whatever I want, even if it is losing my mind on a street in Sicily. As the universe keeps on spiralling in, I flip a homeopathic bee remedy under my tongue and take a shaky swig from my bottle of medicinal herbs. I have to physically move about or expire right there: my choice. 

Back on the main road leading nowhere I stop and turn to face myself. It really would be madness to miss the connection with my host. With a nagging sense of impending doom, I retrace my steps to the garage. The mechanic is waving at me and as I wave back Gloria comes thundering up the road in her navy blue Subaru. “You are alone?” she says in greeting. I like her immediately, and when she suggests going for something to eat and drink, I immediately acquiesce. It couldn’t feel more different than the previous anxious hours - I'm laughing and enjoying my first almond granite. Gloria takes hers with a brioche. I’m still mindful of calories.  

Acitrezza

Covered in soft moss the prominent rocks are seemingly benign, but legend is that this rocky amphitheatre is the place of Ulysses shipwreck. The swell of the tides have harmful or helpful effects on your life: pushing you gently towards shore or dashing you against murderous spikes. A scarlet starfish signals danger on a covert crop in deeper water. Crawling over the smaller emergent rocks I return to shore. Each movement must be carefully made. Little wonder that crabs behave the way they do. I catch fleeting glimpses of sidestepping crustaceans: a small black hard-back and a large tortoiseshell crab.

On these rocks the seagull is king. A German girl cries out in alarm as she finally gets into the freezing water. She calls to her Hans as one of her sandals floats away, “My shoe! My shoe! My shoe!” Her wail of distress mimics a sea bird. The seagulls look on, laughing cruelly.

Gloria’s surname is Caretta, which means turtle in Sicilian. I am waiting for her again, this time at the wrong cafe on the main street in Acitrezza. I am close to breaking down and sit and cry on a bench. Another call to Gloria on a kind stranger's mobile and we meet up at the right cafe, this time she has her daughter with her. We sit and talk over ice creams. She tells me that her best friend at Catania University became a journalist and was shot by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It all fell into place, the trauma was revealed, and I understood the need for kindness, the need for tears.

Palermo

Palermo is wild and rocking on Thursday night and imbued with the sound of the 1960’s; the Beatles, the Doors, Bob Dylan’s harmonica blaring out interspersed with hypnotic Arabic music. I feel alive and surprised that I am still alive. I walk though medieval alleyways, their wide cobbles shine with wear. The young Sicilians part ways only slightly until I ramp up my aura, and only then do they make a bit more room. But it’s relaxed, all out in the open, on the streets. It’s a dreamlike landscape populated by motorcycle boys and girls who drink and smoke to get by.

The streets are stinking, rubbish is piling up in the labyrinthine passages. Andy’s feet stink too when he takes his shoes off. We sit outside and order a giant pizza and talk. Perhaps we could have a B&B in London like the one we are staying in. It’s rudimentary, tiny blue tiles are dotted about the kitchen with two gas rings and a coffee pot, our host’s paintings adorn the walls. The windows look out onto more windows,  the ubiquitous balconies are underpinned with splints.

We talk about privacy in the age of the internet. I have flaunted my public persona all over the web in the form of photographs, videos and articles on health, agriculture and poetry.  All I need now is to expound my take on spirituality and I will be the complete Buddhist writer. But there is little of my other real self: the artist, the shaman, the teacher, who has suffered illness and pain, recovered and become ill again and recovered again.

Palermo operates on a base, low vibration. It would be a good place to drop some acid and be subsumed by it all. In the pizza parlour, feeling slightly tipsy and addicted to sugar, I demand a gelato. I am politely ignored. Finally, the cafe owner responds to me by making hand gestures, holding up a thumb and fourth finger, whatever that may signify. She smokes too much, but her health is protected, for now. She’s making good money on a side street full of restaurants.

In bed, the noise continues and the wooden shutters make complex patterns on the ceiling. Palermo is a place of shadows. There is a glorious decrepitude here. It’s not unlike Rome, where municipal development has not spoiled the intrinsic beauty of the city.  Cultures and identities are preserved mostly because government can’t afford to develop, and widespread corruption means the money has gone elsewhere. 

The sounds of the night eventually settle down. At dawn, the incessant car horns are blaring again: long streams of parping and short bursts of beeping, all at slightly different frequencies. The unnatural horn chorus prevents any return to sleep. In between the beeps is the rumble of a city that has lost it's mind: simultaneously exciting, maddening and disturbing.  A language of parps supplants normal communication by people who are slaves to their cars.

Despite the cacophony, I feel womblike and protected in my shuttered room and arise to try to record the horns. I consider the ease of my journey through airport security, my levels of anxiety have dropped considerably, and people were nice to me. It was recognised in English law this week that children under the age of 17 that experience violence are officially “victims”. I refuse to be a victim again. And like a storm, the horns are lulling, getting further away.

Ustica

On the road going up towards the cliffs, we pause to breathe in the aroma of wild aniseed. Below us the round heads of bobbing buoys are pinpointing sites of rusty finds for divers. For now we are content to look at the surface of large rock pools, seemingly benign, but treacherous if you are caught in a down swell. Our eyes feast on narcissi and strange island flowers. We become trackers, noting rabbit droppings and discharged shot gun cartridges. My energy is raised high by the red stone walls and terrace steppes; the oxygenated, lofty paths are lined with tinder dry plants. Sicily is a ghostly spectre in the distance.  

Back in the town square and covered in unidentified bites, we order beers and a cappuccino. I stand firm until I get what I want. Not an espresso or any other kind of coffee, and when I am served with the right drink I say, “perfecto.” We walk on from the fruit and fish sellers in the market and find ourselves in another isolated part of the island. The wind has picked up and it reminds me of Exmoor. We walked passed what I think is an hotel. It is, in fact, a mortuary chapel. It feels desolate, not peaceful at all. An inbred local woman is staring at me with threatening intent. She is half dressed and looks like she would kill me if she could. She does not look at Andy like that. The feeling that I get from her hellish looks is so disturbing that a shrill alarm goes off in my inner ear.

We decide to walk no further and hop aboard the island’s only bus which trundles past Gavassi lighthouse on the road to the harbour.  I swim under the tower where Gramsci was confined for five years by the Fascists. Resisting the call of the cobalt sea further out by the jetty, I stay with the baby seagulls in their shallow nursery. I swim out to a small boat called Gobbi, Andy’s pet name for me, sweet serendipity. I hear a shrill moan from the sad side of the island. I focus on my strokes, allowing the brine into my secret places, swimming a little further each time to touch an orange buoy. I go beyond my own expectations, riding the fathoms of the waves that are slower than my own heartbeat.  

I stand on Ustica bay, an Empress under the dock. And, wringing out the sea from my breasts, I bless the sea with one last wee: letting go and giving in to the undertow.  Slowly, I dress and let the waves wash my sandy feet.

Trapani

Sweet smelling Catholics are walking the streets. A gentle Sunday procession after church with babies and children. All is as it should be, the family, the less than perfect people, being themselves, being accepted. There are weddings everywhere. In the forests of mountainous Erice, a bride and groom are picking their way through fallen leaves. He wipes his shiny patent shoes as she holds up her delicate, billowing dress, which is far too tight across her chest. He holds her hand tenderly.  

I feel, despite everything, happy on the inside. That it’s all going to be alright. That the best things in life are free and they don't need to be celebrated with a glass of wine. That I could join in without the alcohol and still have fun. 

Yesterday, I went to San Vito Lo Capo on the bus passing the quarries at the base of Erice, the early morning sun twinkling off the town’s windows. There are no speed humps here to disturb the rhythm of the squeaking chassis. On the beach under the cape, two magpies strut for joy. And a flock of Chinese masseurs are hoping to make a euro or two from the sun-bed ladies by rubbing their pink, oil infused fat. I let myself swim in the green jelly sea, no one hassles me.

Back home in Trapani, I run upstairs to the roof and kiss my cup of good fortune. I am lucky to have sussed this side of Sicily. Above the marble stairwell the walls are laden with black and white photographs of World War II, bomb-site scenarios depicting a sad, torn, former reality. 

I am naked on the roof and spellbound by the sun until I see her fixated on my nipples. She is on a roof across the passageway, wearing a bright red shirt dress. She makes hand gestures to me - you and I are the same, she says, we are tight together. I laugh and sit back down on my deckchair obscured now by the wall around the roof’s perimeter. She is young and her teeth are bad, she is a smoker. We are not the same. I quit cigarettes years ago and I’ll quit this place. I’ll move on to find another sun infused roof where I’ll put my problems on the suns rays to be transmuted into strength and love. But in this moment we are the same, joined by the sanctuary and the solitude of the roof, at one with the great central sun.

Trapani II

It’s noisy here! The baker gets to work at 4am shouting loudly at his workers. They turn up the radio and bang about in the kitchen, raising the shopfront shutter mercilessly at 6.45am. Motorbike riders stop off to fill up on pastry. The sun throws golden mists over mountainous Erice, which shimmer down towards Trapani. 

As soon as the motorcycles start their rattle the dog on the opposite balcony starts to whine. He cannot be consoled. His intermittent barking alerts everyone on Via Poeta Calvino to trespassers in the passageway below. It’s a year since my last visit and the balcony Alsatian looks to have aged at least three years. There are three bottles of good Sicilian red wine in my room and a big kitchen knife. I have tried not to think about the wine, but found my mind straying to it more than once.  My flirtation with knives was over long ago, but my parting from alcohol is a relatively recent one. 

On the flight to Trapani I have three seats to myself, from window to aisle.  My first thought is defective, that I’m missing two travelling companions. And, that this could be any configuration of different people; my two children, my parents, my friends Rochelle and Angela, or Katherine and Edna from the women’s group. The only people that aren’t real in the scenario are my children. It’s so sad, such a loss. But my lesson is that I can’t change the past, that I can have compassion and live now.

To be alive in Trapani means making a noise; endless jabbering, revving, and ciao-ing. For me being alive is like continuously stretching. My nerves are so taut that I’m in danger of snapping through lack of sleep or wrong thoughts that lead to where I do not wish to go. Every morning a choir of men salute and praise each other in sing-song greetings. The women, apart from the baker’s wife, stay behind shuttered windows until midday.

I think about music. I think about Jake, who was in a band and wrote a song about me. “You’re exciting!  Like a gram of speed, you’re frightening!’ he hollered at the Roundhouse in Camden, long before it became an Arts Council show piece. I responded to his artistic overtures by painting a picture of a man and a woman with long hair and crowns walking into the sea together. At the all-night party on Shoreham beach, after another of Jake’s gig, we crouch in small groups by fires as if we were witnessing the dawn of creation. “I would walk into the sea with you,” Jake sang as we bumbled over the pebbles to gaze at the waves.

I walk alone into the sea at Trapani and cut my foot straightaway: blood on stone. There is quite a bit of blood, but it stems with the flow of the salt water. The sea prefers to do things to you rather than having you act upon it. The lovers are lying down together on their beach towels. She smiles, a cheeky smile, resigned to her desires. He has eyes for nothing but her body, keeping her in an almost constant state of arousal, so that their holiday goes with a bang. 

Clouds are my entertainment. First they mirror the sickle shape of Trapani bay and then a cirrus curl extends itself to synapse with a passing cumulus in slow motion. Together they form the large chin of Peter Perfect in Wacky Races.  It’s the first time I have seen clouds in Trapani. 

In the evening the chorus of ciaos resumes as the passeggiata of men, women and children begins around the town.  Alone in my room I am too tired to venture into the labyrinthine streets. My feet and legs have received a battering from the rocks and waves.

At night, when the children make that deep fretful cry, parents don’t chide, they just wait for their little ones to be filled with the presence of God. Trapani mothers and fathers do not interfere with their child’s natural fears and sorrows. They simply allow them to make a connection to the divine.  In that way, the child is comforted and filled by a higher love during anxious moments of separation. That connection, forged and strengthened early, makes the passage into adulthood easier.  

As I stand temporarily lost on the esplanade, I realise that all life is about acceptance. With that knowledge, my hips thrum through the streets swaying to their own drumbeat. I feel my prospective new lover R’s whole being moving through me. And then a text from him saying, "Ah Sicily, the land of Normans, Saracens and Samantha!"