Evo Carrara, an advocate friend from Bologna, brushes back coiffed hair with manicured fingers. “A northern Italian cries twice when he has to go south,” he says, smoothing his linen shirt. "When he arrives, and when he leaves.”
Evo pours more prosecco into crystal flutes he inherited from his mother. Hummingbird moths sip nectar from his rosemallow trees. They only come out at dusk and prefer the yellow blooms.
“August is ridiculous. The locals are bandits.” He pushes back his glasses. "The so-called jet set they are fleecing; all Berlusconi’s mistresses. And that terrible transvestite television presenter! I saw him drinking at the bar, topless with his new enormous breasts, wearing only a miniskirt. He is a very vulgar woman.”
Evo makes the sign of the cross and sighs. “It’s so hard to get here. Especially for me, I refuse to fly through Rome. Why? Because it is a third world airport. Then the ferry is not reliable. That has saved this archipelago.”
He leans back and throws his hands towards the bay.
“And then they leave, those oligarchs who moor gleaming yachts at the moletto, and we have this.”
The sky is combed in shooting stars. Lit masts drop shimmering stitches across a sea of stretched velvet. A volcano erupts on the horizon, cambering up as if drawn by a child, to a fuming spout that forges crystal crosses of Saint Gennaro, or so believers claim.
“Aren’t the Aeolian islands protected as a world heritage site?” the English painter Sebastian asks. Mosquitoes drown in silver bowls of citronella wax.
“A world heritage site? That is a joke. No new building is allowed, only renovations in the existing style. Then a brand new house gets built in the reserve, with a swimming pool, the only one on the island. Absolutely forbidden. Built by an official from the mainland who earns less than twenty five thousand a year. Of course, here the mainland is Sicily.”
A bell rings for dinner. We walk past a kitchen buried to escape the heat, and broken tools of the old life are scattered along the path; mill stones, olive presses, cisterns. Mosquito nets swell beneath clacking fans. Dinner is served under trellised jasmine and papery bougainvillea sleepwalks on crumbling plaster. The night smells of rosemary.
Evo’s factotum, Spillo, has been looking after the property since the age of fourteen. He fled the last great eruption on Stromboli with his mother, and used to steal figs from the Romans who owned the property before Evo. Spillo’s wife Giuseppina, Juicy for short, “un nome comune in Sicilia” as she says, shows none of the timidity once so prized in Sicilian women. She cleans and cooks for Evo and guards her recipes with a bowie knife!
For primo piatto she makes Pasta Limone; tagliatelle flavoured with the rind of lemons and egg whites, with prosciutto added just before serving … then pesce spada involtini, (roulades of swordfish) rolled up with parmesan and breadcrumbs. Evo kisses his fingers.
“I have my newspapers ironed in Bologna,” he says. “But here Giuseppina refuses to do it. So I relax my standards.”
“I would too,” says Sebastian. “She looks like one of those terrifying lesbians who run riding schools.”
Swordfish used to be plentiful, caught in the narrowing straits of Messina across the bay. Now the ocean is an enormous museum; quiet, beautiful, empty but for diaphanous shoals of medusa trailing the tides.
Evo employs the whole family. The deaf brother sweeps the sand under the breadfruit trees, the brother-in-law retouches paint in early spring. “Below all of this flows a byzantine arbitration that you can’t imagine!” he says. "Giuseppina is feuding with her sister-in-law. They tried to kill each other with golf carts. This is why I have my practice in Milan.”
A tortoise called Philomena bites my red toenails. She thinks they are tomatoes. More plentiful than tortoises on the islands are geckos and starving cats.
Sebastian says Sicilian history is as dense and layered as its gaudy pastries. “They have been terrorised by Athenians, Romans, Saracens, Hapsburgs, Angevins, but most importantly the Church and its roving ambassador The Inquisition.”
Evo agrees. “History explains why they needed protection from outsiders. But more than the Cosa Nostra is the sun. Six months of fiery summer makes the Sicilian character fatalistic and impenetrable.”
Apricot tree roots are patiently disrupting the ancient tiles on Evo’s terrace. I stumble home full of Limoncello. In the south Italians start eating at eleven o’clock at night and dessert is served at two in the morning. They say the bay of Naples smells of lemons.
Named after Aeolus keeper of winds, the Aeolian isles form a broken rosary of flint and feldspar smack on the silk route of literature. Ulysses sailed past. Goethe examined the geology. The Moorish traveller Ibn Jubayr was shipwrecked in 1185 and took refuge in his diary admiring the orchards of the infidel with the covetous rejoinder (may God restore it to the Muslims). D.H. Lawrence and Truman Capote sweated through some summers. Salvatore Quasimodo wrote poems about water and dusk. i
At its summit Panarea is deserted. Falcons glide past abandoned terraces covered in Illyrian thistle and white flowered sea squill. On clear days the outline of Sicily is as sharp as an etching. Etna and Stromboli are threaded by buried arteries of lava. Glistening water beads dance from a porous sea floor. The scent of aniseed rises from cindery paths. Pigeons sing from blue teardrop trees shading a church of ringing bells. Marble angels attend mausoleums. Here is a clean page for the gods to draw on.
Today the islanders flock to the festival of San Pietro, following an epauletted brass band serenading penitents bearing an oak and birch Jesus, led by a pious and cassocked Padre Gulio, through the boiling town down to a festooned ship. They board a creaking sloop with holy water and prayer and float around the island entreating bounty for its fisherman; those who are left, not driven out by phylloxera to Australia and Argentina like previous generations, whose relatives now own valuable real estate on an island that once could not give itself away. Lawyers negotiate forty signatures to title deeds.
Along the narrow streets very old ladies in tent dresses and thick-soled shoes, whose dogs stand sentinel on rooftops, buy fruit and fish from sellers screaming their wares on loud hailers, “frutta fresca! pesce fresca!” The lone island donkey baulks at the heat from below an olive tree.
Evo is taking us on a day trip to a neighbouring island and I wait for him down at the port. The workforce are locals; men who have lived their lives in salt and sun, shooting the breeze; distinct from Milanese vacationers in espadrilles. I join the queue of foreign skippers and quiet Filipinos to buy croissants filled with custard and dusted in icing sugar that they call cornetto. Cornuto is an arch Sicilian insult indicated with the pointer and pinky held forward like bulls horns to indicate cuckold. We order chocolate and marmalade stuffed cuckolds while sailing boats and ferries and yachts tack the winds. There are many: the Tramontane, Gregale, Libeccio, Mistral, but feared most of all, the Sirocco, a furnace of hot red dust that blows from the Sahara in late summer.
Evo is furious, his boat is stuck in Milazzo. The mechanic says “Domane Domane. Tomorrow Tomorrow.” Lunch is sweltering in baskets on the quay. Sebastian saves the day with a rental, painted with yellow and blue stripes and a white cloth as shade.
Evo is still cross. He points at the procession. “Backward peasants.”
Sebastian laughs. “But Evo, all the pageantry, it’s charming.”
Evo relaxes over a glass of Malvasia. “It is a more serious matter to be a Catholic atheist, than a Protestant atheist, I am entitled to my prejudices.”
We eat lunch moored off the island of Salina. Mozzarella di buffula. Caponata. Squid that is caught at full moon, stuffed with chillies and mint. Risotto con funghi. Prosciutto wrapped in layers of cling film and tinfoil, freshly cut off a ham in the port. Subtly redolent melons that make the whole boat fragrant. Bread that must be eaten from the oven, dipped in olive oil that comes from an orchard behind Milazzo and sold by the litre. “Here in the south,” Sebastian says, “The tomatoes are grown with their own salt and pepper inside them.” For dessert it’s Canole, used as a murder weapon in The Godfather.
There is an old Roman port just below the waterline. The stamp of grand architecture has escaped the islands, with crumbling farmhouses rebuilt and crumbling and rebuilt to sustain a life of subsistence fishing and farming and lookouts for slavers who used to round up islanders for sale. The last Saracen raid emptied Lipari in 1544.
Evo’s daughter pulls fish from the deep with leftover bread; like an upturned watery church square minnows are the pecking doves, darting in fanning swirls at water softened-bread sinking into the glass blue depths, gingerly picking at the providence of the little girl with golden plaits.
We go ashore for Salina’s famed granite, frozen desserts flavoured with almonds, pistachios, mulberries, hazelnuts, lemons and watermelon. Sicilians shout by way of conversation, perhaps to defend themselves against the sun. Rows upon rows of Madonnas and other objects of religious idolatry line the shop shelves. Evo points out the garish knick-knacks. “The mafia controls the production of these, as well as the supply of water. These are the home industries of the Cosa Nostra.”
“Listen to this,” I read aloud. “The appearance of a monk who claimed his hands miraculously reproduced Christ’s wounds was enough to provoke a delirium in the little hamlet of Foggia in the 60s ... Such was the clamour to be confessed by padre Pio that by arrangement with the mafia, the queue could be jumped. Revolting relics of the monk’s stigmata – hundreds of yards of blood-soaked bandages displayed on market stalls outside the convent were sold at a premium. Despite proof that the blood was that of chickens, sales did not slacken.” ii
“Does this surprise you?” says Evo. "In that book of yours you will see that Goethe met a shopkeeper in Sicily who said the people look for nothing more confidently than for a miracle.” iii
Evo kisses his fingers.
“Tonight we are eating pasta Norma, with eggplant and smoked Mozzarella. Fagiollini from the garden. Maybe a fish or an octopus?”
Aside from medusa, octopus cling to the empty crevasses around the island and watch intelligently, careful to avoid the sight of an Italian spear fisherman. If they don’t succeed, they are shot, boiled for two hours and served with lemon and garlic and chilli. In Greece he tells us, the fishermen smash octopus to death on the rocks to tenderise them, then spread them over a barbecue to grill until blackened tendrils curls back upon themselves. For dessert it’s a slice of watermelon from the neighbour’s garden, a half-moon presented on a dessert plate with knife and fork and no air miles.
Sebastian sighs. “Evo, all this food is going to kill us.”
Evo nods his head.
[i] Clare, Horatio. 2006. Sicily: through writers’ eyes. London: Eland. p.120
[ii] Clare, Horatio. 2006. Sicily: through writers’ eyes. London: Eland. p.254
[iii] Clare, Horatio. 2006. Sicily: through writers’ eyes. London: Eland. p.116