Once you see them emerge from the blue sea you know you are close. Even from the sky, you can sense the pulse of history drawing closer, feel how old the land is and how many souls have lived and died right beneath you.Our pilot left Rome in a huff, and bad-temperedly dipped and wove his way down the southern Italian coastline, my father cradling his head in his hands the entire way.
"I'd like to see Sicily again," he mumbles as he throws his hand forward to brace himself against the seat in front. My mother, sitting across the aisle from us, looks over and grins. Upon leaving Brisbane, she had entrusted my brother and I to the care of my father for the entire journey, and on each flight she sat herself across from us, oblivious to all goings-on. As the plane waited on the tarmac at Brisbane airport, my mother had broken the plastic casing on her purple and blue blanket, unfurled it, drew it up to her chin, and promptly fell asleep.
That's how she has been for the entire 30-hour journey so far, waking up only in time for meals and to disembark. My father, brother and I, on the other hand, had stayed awake for every bump and jostle of turbulence and every nailbiting pocket of air. The trek across the Bay of Bengal was, I was sure, among the last moments of my life. So, with the exception of my mother, who was being lulled to sleep by the toss of our impending crash, we all sat upright and alert, awaiting our early morning fate off the coast of India. Somehow, by the grace of some deity, we made it through, and on landing in Rome I felt the worst was finally over. Until I entrusted my life to an Italian pilot.
"Enough is enough," sighs my father as the plane abruptly loses altitude in a steep dive. It's a tight flying circle in this part of the world.
I turn to look at Ross but he's got his nose pressed to the window. I look past him and out to the sky and then, out of nowhere, there she is. Etna. Towering. Unmistakable. Terrifying.
"Mamma! L'Etna!" cries the little boy sitting behindme.
I look out of the window again to her smoking peak. My heart surges and my soul rises to just beneath the surface of my skin so that all the hairs on my body stand on end. I turn to my father beside me and see tears in his eyes. Home, his expression says. Finally, I am home.
* * *THE days pass in a slow, hypnotic rhythm. We get up late and eat a granita at the bar for breakfast. We drive to the beach where we bake for half a day and then come home for lunch, which is usually a panino with cheese and salami, some olives and a couple of glasses of red wine. We finish off with some fruit and maybe a scoop of gelato. Then we take to our beds for an afternoon nap on cool, white sheets between cool, white walls. In the late afternoon we get up, get dressed and go to whichever aunt, uncle or cousin has offered to feed us for the evening.
Zia Enna's pasta al forno proves to be up to the hype. I look at my brother as we walk up as a family to ZiaEnna's.
"Have you put on weight?" I ask.
"No!" his hands shoot automatically to his stomach and he rubs it.
The smell at Zia Enna's door is of baked pasta and fried eggplant. It seeps out of the front door and creates a cloud of scent on the footpath.
"Have so," I whisper as my mother presses thebuzzer.
The locks snap open, the door swings in and we are engulfed by the warm smells of baking that draw us up the stairs and into Zia Enna's kitchen by our noses. We find her tucked into a checked apron, pushing back her giant glasses and giggling softly to herself.
"Zia, it smells great!" says my brother, as he rushes to her and gives her a kiss on each cheek. She gushes like a schoolgirl and picks his face up in her hands.
"He's so good-looking," she sighs, "he will get an extra big piece!"
Ross just smiles and I look to his tummy, which has started to fill out nicely. Zia Enna bends down and opens the oven door. From inside she draws out a baking dish of pasta al forno. The sauce has turned a deep red and the cheese on top has melted and turned into a hot crusty lid. With a long, sharp knife she starts slicing through the pasta, cutting large square portions. She slips a spatula under one corner and lifts out the most perfect piece of pasta al forno I have ever seen. The layers of penne sit perfectly moulded to layers of fried eggplant, meatballs and hardboiled eggs. Melted cheese binds it all together.
"Go sit in the dining room," she shooes us all away with a smile.
Drool appears at the corner of Ross's mouth and I know that Sicily has changed him forever.
"Ross gets the biggest piece," says Zia Enna as she appears in the dining room carrying a plate. She lays a hunk of pasta down in front of my brother.
"He's a growing boy," she giggles.
"He's growing all right," I cough, and Ross shoots me an evil glare in reply.
"So what do you think of Sicily?" Zia Enna asks Ross when we've all been served dinner. "It's beautiful, Zia," he smiles around a mouthful ofpasta.
"Ah!" Zia Enna claps her hands together, "it is beautiful, isn't it? The air, the mountain, the sea -- you can breathe here." Her eyes lock on to my brother's.
"You should find yourself a nice Sicilian girl and stay here." Ross smiles again. "And I'll make you pasta al forno every week."
He looks like he's seriously considering it.
* * *SO the days pass in this easy, hot, food-fuelled rhythm until, finally, Saturday night arrives.
Castelmola is reached only by braving a number of tight hairpin curves, with nothing but a sheer drop below. Gianni spins his car expertly around the tight corners, only occasionally veering slightly to one side and swiping a few trees. My fingers are locked in a white-knuckle grip on the armrest.
Gianni swings his door open and we both get out of the car and step into the night air, me on shaking legs. Gracie slides out of the back seat.
We walk a long, curving tarmac road up into a square and past the ancient castle that gives the town its name. Gianni is slightly ahead of us and I'm trying hard not to let my eyes linger too long. Instead I turn my eyes to the town that had captured my imagination from the ground. There is a fairytale quality to this place. Once upon a time it would have been a remote, towering outpost, the residents comfortable in their isolation. Below us, the tourist mecca of Taormini is brightly lit and overcrowded. Up here the lights are soft and muted, swept stone alleys are lined with hundreds of steps, and there's a soothing quiet in which you could happily lose yourself. Gianni winds on ahead, turning left and right down streets the width of staircases and studded with sand-coloured steps. Gracie loops her arm in mine and we continue to climb.
I exhale slowly and know that, even though I have hardly seen the rest of the island, I have just found my favourite Sicilian town. Dinner is on a stone terrace, and like most of Castelmola we have to climb a steep incline of steps to get there. "Pizza," Gracie says, "I'm definitely having pizza."
I tip my head back so that I can see the stars in the sky. This far up the mountain they look like you can reach out and touch them. The terrace is awash with soft amber lights and our company is an assortment of Gianni's friends and their girlfriends, all of them glowing and tanned. To one side I have Gracie and directly across from me is Gianni, his eyes turning a shade of light chocolate in the soft light, which sets his tan perfectly against the light blue of his shirt.
"Margherita," I say to the waitress.
"Booorrring," hums Gracie at my side.
The air is cool and it makes me shiver a little. Pizza and beer seem like the perfect meal tonight.