Escape From Sicily
Sicily. The Motherland (at least for the Italian side of my family).
For those of you who aren’t up to speed on European geography, Sicily is an island in the Mediterranean as far south on the Italian “boot” as you can go. It is, quite literally (and figuratively speaking), it’s OWN country. My grandparents immigrated from Palermo to Brooklyn, NY in the early 1930s with my father and his two brothers. When I was a kid, my Dad talked about Sicily all the time. He’d go on endless tirades about the food, the beautiful women and how Sicilians were some of the smartest and most culturally innovative people in the world. Since my European adventure was about to come to a close, I figured it would be fun to head down there for a few days and check it out.
According to my Dad, it was the most awesome place on earth. How could I not?
Como (where my Mom lives, and where I am now) is about as far north in Italy as you can get, practically bordering Switzerland in the Alps. I had just gotten back here a week prior, after three exciting months of exploring other parts of Europe. Needless to say, it’s a long way to Sicily (approximately 869 miles). Since I had already become accustomed to traveling on the seemingly efficient railway system in Europe, I figured I would use it again for this trip, as it would be a perfect opportunity to see the gorgeous Italian landscape while I worked on my book. Plus the Eurail pass I’d already bought had a few days left on it before expiring.
The Eurail pass is a sort of ‘all access’ ticket to a few bordering countries of your choice, but only on a first come, first serve basis. There are *no* advance reservations. You literally show up at the station the day of and hope for the best. This made traveling somewhat difficult at times. After taking the regional line from Como to Milan (the closest station with connections to Sicily), I was informed that all of the trains were booked solid for three days, and that I wouldn’t be able to purchase a ticket, even if I wanted to. Total bummer.
Then I remembered the modern miracle of human flight.
I went outside and hailed a cab, which took me straight to the Milan airport. As it turned out, the last flight of the day, to Catania, was in two hours. Luckily, it ended up costing less than a train ticket would have, and now, instead of twenty hours travel time, I only had two. Wicked.
Oh yeah, I should probably mention this…
None of this European trip would have been possible without the gracious help of my Euro friends and family (that I mostly know as a result of being in the music business), who’ve allowed me to crash at their pads or have otherwise hooked me up with affordable accommodations. In fact, the only place I’ve gone in all of Europe, where I didn’t know someone personally, was San Sebastian, Spain (slash Hendaye, France). And actually, I have to say, it’s been infinitely easier to know people in all the places I’ve been, that spoke the language and could show me the lay of the land. As an ‘English only’ speaking American, Europe can be somewhat difficult to navigate without any prior knowledge of what you’re getting yourself into.
Anyway, I had a friend from Texas who knew this girl (we’ll call her Tracy) who had moved from Dallas to Catania in 2009. I didn’t know her personally. She was literally a friend of a friend. I contacted her a few weeks prior to my trip via Facebook (by suggestion), and she offered to arrange for me to stay at an affordable Bed and Breakfast on the water for five days. She seemed nice enough via email, albeit somewhat slow in response. This, of course, made me a bit nervous, but I wasn’t going to let it hinder my appetite for adventure. The day before my departure arrived and I still had not heard back from her with any sort of confirmation about where I would be staying, how to contact her, etc. It wasn’t until I emailed her in total desperation that she even sent me her phone number. Yikes.
That was my first sign that things may not go well.
But fuck it, onward!
After I landed in Catania the next day, I found a pay phone in the airport lobby and called Tracy. She immediately answered and told me that she was on her way and would be there within twenty minutes. I went back inside and found a place to sit in the barely air-conditioned lobby, while a barrage of angry looking Sicilian men sized me up. I hoped to God that I didn’t look too much like a tourist, but I’m almost positive that I was the whitest guy in the entire building (After six months of traveling to various countries, I’ve gotten fairly used to being the outsider).
Tracy showed up when she said she would. She was a moderately attractive women in her late thirties, who’s ever apparent over-use of makeup, gave me the distinct impression that she was fiercly clinging to the very last remnants of her fading youth (she was sporting a mini-skirt, bikini top and a baseball cap to boot). I put my bag in the trunk and got in her car. We quickly started up a conversation, asking basic questions about one another.
Her: How long have you been in Europe?
Me: How long have you lived in Catania?
Her: What is it you do exactly?
Me: What is it *you* do exactly?
… and so on and so forth. This exchange went on the duration of the car ride.
What I learned about her in thirty minutes was that she was an ex tweaker/DJ groupie/booking agent who ended up marrying a Sicilian DJ/producer and moving to Catania. She didn’t really do *anything* else besides run a “record label” that barely put out one release a month. I could already tell that she was caddy because she acted like a princess. That was OK because I’d dealt with her type before. (You can’t really take anything they say *too* seriously). Her husband was apparently out of town that night DJing at a gig somewhere in northern Italy.
For a married woman, she was awfully touchy/feely/flirty, but I thought nothing of it as I don’t typically allow my brain to go there. In my experience, Karma is a total bitch when it comes to messing with other people’s girlfriends/wives. She took me to my hotel and we made plans to meet up for dinner later that night. She picked me up a few hours later, along with her nineteen year old (I want to say intern, but he was really more of her go-fer) english speaking, Sicilian friend, Cozy. The three of us headed to a rustic Sicilian restaurant where we drank copius amounts of red wine, ate amazing food, and delved into heated discussions/debate about the electronic music scene.
It was there, that I noticed the second thing that made me question her character.
At one point during dinner, a man walked up to the table (we were sitting outside) and tried to get us to buy roses. I looked at him and kindly told him ‘no thank you.’ He then made his way around the table to Tracy’s side and offered them to her as well. With an annoyed look on her face, she looked at Cozy and said “Oh my God, is this guy still standing here? Can you tell him to fuck off?” She wouldn’t even *look* at the guy.
Having had a few glasses of vino in me, unfiltered Scott said to her,
“Jesus, can’t you look him in the eye and tell him yourself?”
I tried to say it with a half cocked smile on my face, but really, I was annoyed that she was being a bitch and it showed (I don’t fake things well at all). I mean, who was she to act like that to this poor guy, who was simply trying to make a living? Like he was some low life who *she* was too high and mighty to speak to herself! This obviously steered the entire vibe of the night in the wrong direction, and pretty soon, there were long patches of uncomfortable silence, broken by an occasional comment from her like,
“Wow and how many more days are you here?”
Ok, so maybe I went a little to far the first night I was in a foreign country being hosted by someone else. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut, but frankly, I don’t usually hang out with people with trashy personalities, so this was already pushing my boundaries. I eventually sucked it up and apologized, using the excuse that I was tired from traveling and that I always got a little edgy when I’d had too much to drink. She smiled and said it was OK (as if she was never even bothered by it), and drove me back to my hotel after we paid the bill.
Hopefully tomorrow would work out better.
I spent the next day taking pictures and video along the beach near where I was staying. It was hot and humid, and half naked natives were out in droves. I felt like I was in an episode of Jersey Shore, literally. The typical young, hairless Sicilian males were sporting Speedos, spiked hair and douchey aviator glasses. When they weren’t yelling something to any halfway attractive female that passed by (as if the women would drop everything they were doing and fuck them right there on the spot – does that actually work?), they would just stand there attempting to look boss. A couple of them even had one leg propped, unnaturally high, on a rock or fence post, as if to boldly display their junk for the world to admire. It was fucking gross.
Apparently Tracy didn’t think so. She met up with me at a cafe/bar along the beach later that day, and we proceeded to have a few beers while she oogled over guys’ packages. This is where I learned about Tracy’s potty mouth. Now, vulgarity doesn’t bother me one single bit, as I, myself, talk like a sailor. I guess it was just surprising to hear a married woman talk about how she jacked off this guy and sucked that guy’s dick, and so on and so forth. I was getting the distinct impression that the sacred bonds of marriage *really* didn’t apply here.
Oh! This is the part in the story, where I ate a caper that tasted like crack. No, seriously. You know how certain smells/tastes can instantly take you back in time? This caper… WOW. Like a bona fide, chemical candy crack hit. Yes, it’s true, I know what crack tastes like. When I was younger, *much* younger, I smoked a lot of it, but that is another story.
Anyhoo, fast forward to later that evening. I met up with Tracy, her husband Pepe (who had just gotten back from wherever the hell he was), Cozy the ‘yes-man’, and their tattooed Oompa Loompa looking friend ‘Doink’ for dinner. Tracy was dressed like a full fledged street walker (her words, not mine) complete with half shirt, tight black spandex pants and six inch heels. Pepe, who looked like he could be the long lost Sicilian love-child of Pedro (from Napoleon Dynamite) and Gomez Addams, was polite, but relatively quiet. Both him and Doink spoke decent English, but talked mostly in Italian to each another.
And then there was dinner.
Ever heard the saying, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse?”
Well, that’s exactly what happened.
Horse meat is a Sicilian delicacy. When Tracy asked me if I’d ever eaten it before, I thought she might be fucking with me. Really. That or she was making some deranged ‘Godfather’ reference. Either way, I admitted (hesitantly) that I’d never had it, but was willing to try anything once. Why the hell not? When in Rome… err, Catania. Right?
It turned out to be delicious. Actually, not just delicious, but the best filet I’ve ever had in my entire life (kangaroo coming in at a close second, which I’d tried in Jersey UK just a couple months prior). The place we went to was one of several, similar looking restaurants, on a constricted, yet busy downtown street. There were at least fifteen occupied tables and an enormous outdoor grill, cooking what I could only assume were, the unfortunate losers of the local (and very much illegal) horse races. See link. (After reading that article today, I’ll never eat horse again).
The five of us sat there for a couple of hours, eating, drinking wine and generally having a good time. I was my usual, chatty (read: witty) self, recounting stories as they became relevant to the conversation. It seemed like everything was going great until Pepe looked at me with a sly grin on his face and asked,
“So you like crazy stories, huh?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” I responded, cautiously. It sounded like he was testing me.
He then went on to tell me about how him and Doink had been at a house party a few years back. They had been doing piles of cocaine and ended up having sex with a girl who was renowned for being the local nympho. OK, that part seemed normal. I mean, who hasn’t tag teamed a girl or two with their best friend on cocaine? I guess it was the part about how they’d taken a beer bottle and ruthlessly fucked her with the wide end of it until she bled, that made me a little queasy. Apparently, this poor girl had to go to the hospital afterwards. I looked at him, slightly nauseated, then looked at Doink and let out a gratuitous (and slightly nervous) chortle.
All four of them sat there, looking at me, grinning, waiting for me to say something. Was he was telling the truth or was he just trying to mess with me? Maybe he felt threatened in front of his wife and this was his way of throwing a wrench into my gears? Who the hell knows.
I wasn’t exactly sure what the appropriate response was.
“Heh, wow” I said, wondering where this was going next.
In retrospect, I should have gotten the fuck out of there right then and there, but, I didn’t. I guess I felt like the Universe wasn’t going to let anything happen to me, but in reality, the two or three glasses of wine I’d consumed had dulled my spider sense. Then Tracy piped up,
“Well, should we head out?”
Yes. God, please.
We paid the bill and walked to a nearby bar. Once we got there, Pepe and Doink scurried off by themselves to buy cigarettes, while Tracy, Cozy and I sat down at a table and and ordered drinks. I started making idle chit-chat with them, when a young boy approached us, begging for change. Right on cue, Tracy looked over at Cozy and demanded that he send the boy away. This time, though, I kept my mouth shut and gave him the one coin I had in my pocket. As he walked away, Tracy made a belittling comment about homeless people and laughed. I shot her a fake smile and looked in the other direction. Jesus, this woman was horrible.
Pepe and Doink came back about twenty minutes later and sat down at the table. It was obvious that they were drunk, because they almost tripped over themselves as they approached. Not wanting to get too deep about anything, I started talking about something we all had in common. Electronic music. This eventually led Tracy and I to discuss what it was I did for a living (which is music for film/TV) and she began picking my brain and asking me questions about how she could get Pepe into something like that. At this point, Pepe and Doink had completely stopped interacting with us and were chatting amongst themselves in Italian. Tracy was trying to get me to give advice to Pepe, but I could tell he wasn’t interested, at all, in talking business.
“Maybe we should talk about this another time,” I said. “It doesn’t seem like he wants to discuss it.”
She glared at me, obviously peturbed, then looked at Pepe and said,
“Fine, I won’t fucking help you do anything anymore.”
I *really* should have gone back to my hotel. Really. But, again, I didn’t. It was at that point, that Pepe got up from the table and said,
“Alright, we’re going somewhere else.”
We followed him back to the car, got in, and he drove us (drunk) to the “drive-through.”
First, let me explain what driving in Sicily is like. If you’ve ever been to a third world country (like Mexico, India, etc) you’ll know that there aren’t many rules of the road, as you might be accustomed to, in say, America or England. Everyone drives fast. Really fast. They weave in and out of traffic, honking and shouting at anyone in their way. Nobody drives in one lane. They don’t use turn signals. They don’t yield. It’s really, just an all out vehicular cluster-fuck. I’m honestly surprised there aren’t more accidents. I guess the natives are used to it.
So, yeah, the drive-through…
Pepe and Doink wanted cocaine, and the drive-through was the only place in town where you could get it. I had already learned my lesson about doing drugs in foreign countries *years* ago, as I had been the unsuspecting target of a sting operation in Canada after a Deepsky gig (that too, is another story). I had *no* intention or desire to take part in any of this mess. It was already bad enough that I had to hang out with these miserable bastards, I didn’t need to make it any worse at this point. He ended up driving us into the ghetto and pulling into a dark alley where Guidos in white pollo shirts took orders from passing cars. Suddenly, we heard shouting, two cars up, between the driver and one of the dealers. Everyone in our car became visibly tense. Pepe put car into reverse, and attempted to back up, while Doink nervously told everyone in the car to keep calm. It was right then that another car pulled in behind us, trapping us in the alleyway.
FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!
At any moment, I expected gunfire to to break out.
My internal rhetoric kept playing over and over,
“Why did I get myself into this? WHY did I get myself into this? WHY DID I GET MYSELF INTO THIS?”
Seriously. I knew better.
Poop nuggets. They’re hard to squeeze back in when you’re crammed in the back seat of a tiny car between two other people (lateral movement is limited). Somehow, though, I found the wherewithal once we’d made our way out of the ghetto. Pepe and Doink had scored a sack of blow just moments after the alleyway debacle (which, as you might have guessed, hadn’t erupted into anything serious). Regardless, my tension level had reached critical mass and my tolerance for any bullshit beyond that point had escaped me. I didn’t want to be with these people any longer, and thusly, became quiet and antisocial.
Pepe drove us to a beach club, just a couple of miles outside of the city. After Tracy unsuccessfully attempted to pull rank with the owner (which utimately led to our rejection), we went to, yet another, bar down the street, where things continued to disintegrate further. Pepe and Doink snuck off to the bathroom every 15 minutes to do coke, while I was left at the table with Tracy and Cozy. There wasn’t much of a dialogue happening between me and *anyone* at this point and Tracy had turned into a total bitch as a result. She made snide and underhanded comments every few minutes, as if that were going to rouse me into talking. It didn’t take long for Pepe and Doink to join in, and pretty soon all four of them were laughing and making fun of me, in Italian. What a nightmare. I mean, here I was in a strange and foreign country, where I hardly spoke or understood the language, and now I was trapped with a bunch of dizzy assholes, who were treating me like a piece shit, IN FRONT OF MY FACE!
Finally, after a few minutes, I spoke up and said,
“Can you guys drive me back to my hotel, please.”
“No, we’re going to another place to get some food,” Pepe said. “We can take you afterwards.”
There was no way in *Hell* I was going with them anywhere else. Absolutely, no fucking way. Plus it was already four in the morning and I was exhausted.
“Then can you please call me a cab. I really want to go back to my hotel.” I didn’t have a working cell phone, nor did I know enough Italian to ask anyone else around us. Shit, I didn’t even know where I was really. This was horrible.
Tracy looked at Cozy and said, “Can you just call him a cab?” with a mischievous smirk on her face. He paused for a second, as if he didn’t understand the question, and then smiled back and got his phone out.
Oh, this couldn’t be good.
He dialed a number and spoke to someone in Italian on the other end (which of course I understood *none* of).
“The cab should be here in a few minutes,” he said with a sly look, when he got off the line.
My head became plagued with worry. Were they just going to leave me here waiting, while they went somewhere else? What if it never came? What if it did come and I couldn’t explain to them how to get to my hotel? What if someone came for me and it *wasn’t* a cab? What if someone were coming to kill me? These were the horrible, horrible thoughts that ran through my head as I tried to figure out what to do next.
“I think maybe I’ll just go with you guys,” I said. That really seemed like the safest option, albeit, not a great one.
“Sorry, they’re already on their way. There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Cozy said.
I wanted to cry. Seriously. How did I end up in this mess?
Tracy looked over at Cozy, and then, as if in a singular moment of guilty altruism, said hesitantly,
“Maybe we outta call them and tell them not to come…”
That was when the mini-van pulled up.
It was white, with no visible indication that it was a taxi in any way, shape or form. Pepe walked up to the passenger side as the large, brute of a driver rolled the window down (I was surprised it even *had* windows to be honest). They spoke in Italian for about a minute, sporadically looking back at me as I got in the rear seat. It appeared as if I had no choice but to go with him at this point. I was so incredibly distraught, I thought I might pass out at any moment.
Once they had finished talking, Pepe looked at me and said,
“He’s going to take you back to your hotel now. It’s going to cost thirty Euro.”
I just looked at him blankley, and without saying another word, he slid the side door shut.
The van pulled away from the bar, and I never saw the four of them again.
The first rule in a crisis situation – Don’t move too soon. Or is it, don’t panic? I forget.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was always so damn calm in situations like this. Knowing him, he probably would have told the driver to pull over. When the driver didn’t comply, he would have, unapologetically, snapped the man’s neck like a twig from behind, pulled the van to the side of the road and delivered one of his famous one liners. Something witty like “keep the change.” My situation, on the other hand, well, this didn’t come with a script. I had no idea how this was going to play out, or what my inevitable fate would be. One half of me believed I was about to become fertilizer and was already making peace with it. The other half, the instinctual half, was scanning the inside of the van for information or clues as to what the hell was happening and how to deal with it.
We drove for about ten minutes, in what seemed to be, the right direction. I really didn’t know for sure because the terrain all looked the same to me. We could have been heading straight to Don Corleon’s house for all I knew. I had been eyeing the lock on the side door for the last five minutes, wondering how quickly I might be able to get it open if/when the car slowed down. Maybe the guy wouldn’t have a gun, and if he did maybe I could zig zag away, fast enough that he wouldn’t be able to hit me in the dark. These strategies, and more, were coursing through my head at lightening speed. And to think I’d ever have a need to dodge bullets!
When we got back into town, the driver pulled into a dark alley (what was it with these people and dark alleys?) and stopped the car. This wasn’t my hotel. He started to turn around, and in broken English said,
“You give me two hundred Euro…”
I barely heard the word “Euro” as I bolted out the door. I wasn’t going to waste any more time waiting around to see how this played out. I ran behind the van, out of the alleyway and around the corner, ducking in and out of buildings/archways in order to elude being seen or caught. I could hear him yelling something in Italian, but I never ended up seeing him or the van again. Luckily we weren’t that far from my hotel either (just a couple of blocks). I guess the guy was planning to take me there all along, but was still trying to scam me in the process. When I finally got back to my room, I collapsed on the bed, devoid of any and all energy and eventually fell asleep (after being slightly vague on Facebook about what had just happened).
I got up a couple of hours later and quickly packed my things. I went downstairs, paid for my room, grabbed another taxi and headed to the local train station. I figured, instead of having to deal with the airport again, a nice, long, relaxing train ride would do me some good. OK, that, and I thought someone might be waiting for me at the airport. I bought a second class ticket on the first train out.
Oh how I wished later, that I’d flown.
Let me just say, that the trains in Italy are nothing like the sleek bullets they have in France or Germany. In fact, I’d describe them more like the ‘Ford Pinto’ of the railroad (only second to American trains). I was under the assumption that because I didn’t have an assigned seat number on my ticket, that seating was on a first come, first serve basis (some of the trains I’d taken in other countries worked that way). It was relatively unoccupied at that point, and so I found a window seat in a empty compartment. I put my huge black suitcase on the luggage rack and sat down.
Because it was still morning, it hadn’t gotten hot yet. I leaned my head up against the window and quickly fell asleep, as I was still pretty exhausted from last night’s surley misadventures. I woke up soon after, when the train made it’s first stop and a young Italian couple came in. They smiled. I smiled back. The train continued north. We made our way up the Sicilian coastline, until we slowed down and entered a tunnel that led to a white room, where the train finally came to a stop. This was odd. It looked like… could it be? I looked at the couple, and asked them (hoping, of course, they understood English),
“Are we on a boat?”
The man looked at me and nodded his head.
“Yes,” he said with a thick Italian accent. “This is the ferry that will take us to the mainland.”
Holy shit. I never knew you could pull an entire train onto a boat!
“You can go up and watch as we cross the water,” he said. “But you take backpack with you.”
He pointed to the iPad I had gotten out and wagged his finger. Apparently, it wasn’t safe to leave things out around here. I understood. I put my iPad away and made my way out, through the train room (there were two trains side by side) and up the narrow stairway, eventually emerging onto the ship’s observation deck.
Sure enough, we were en route to the Italian mainland.
Arrivederci Sicily. I was half tempted to flip it off as we drifted away.
Thirty minutes later, when we got to the mainland, I reboarded the train downstairs, and we continued our journey up the coastline. Over the next hour, more people began to board, and eventually a stocky man with a baseball cap came in to our compartment. He looked at me, looked at his ticket and then back at me. Annoyed, he said something that I couldn’t understand.
“Io parlo poco Italiano” I responded (meaning ‘I speak little Italian’). I’d probably said it a thousand times on this trip so far.
“He says you’re sitting in his seat,” the man from earlier, said to me.
“Oh OK. Sorry about that.” I looked at him and smiled, then moved to the window seat across the way.
He sat down and stared at me for the next minute. Then he started speaking to the young couple in Italian. The only word I could pick out was ‘Americano’ every couple of minutes as he went on a tyrade, his arms flailing about (as Italians tend to do when they speak). The young couple kept looking over at me every couple of minutes, almost apologetically, as if to let me know they weren’t happy about him either. He didn’t stop talking for the next two hours.
We were only three hours into the entire trip and all six seats were now filled. An older, fat woman had boarded just minutes earlier, and sat in the middle seat across the way from me. I kept catching her staring at the tattoos on my arms and then back at me, with a complete and utter look of disgust on her face. Damn, people down south were really unpleasant. Little did I know I wouldn’t have to put up with it much longer, because another man walked into the compartment a few minutes after that, and told me that I was sitting in *his* seat. Frustrated, I made my way out into the cooridor, where the train was now packed solid with standing people. There was literally *no* place to sit. AND to top it all off, there was no air conditioning. It had to have been a hundred degrees.
I ended up standing for the next 6 hours, packed in, side by side, with other, hot, tired and frustrated passengers. It took every ounce of will I had to not scream like a crazy person and jump out the fucking window.
When we finally pulled into Napoli, most of the other passengers got off the train and so I finally found a place to sit down again. It took another two hours to get to Rome. Once in Rome, I switched trains and sat another ten hours on the way to Milan, then another fourty minutes to Como.
Not having had a phone or access to the internet, I wasn’t able to let my Mom know what time I was arriving in Como (which happened to be around 8am the next day – almost twenty four hours since I’d left Sicily). I finally found someone nice enough to let me use their smartphone at the train station, and I sent an email to her. I figured since she was on all the computer *all* the time, it wouldn’t be long until she saw it and came to get me.
It took eight hours for her to finally see the email and send Eric, her husband, to the station. It wasn’t their fault though, it was mine for not having their phone number written down (it was in my laptop that I’d left at their house as a precaution). When I finally got home, it had been a total of thirty hours of travel/wait time. All I wanted at that point, was a shower and a sleeping pill. My Mom told me later, that when she saw me sleeping, I had a huge smile on my face. I think that’s pretty funny, but I’m totally not surprised. I was *so* happy to be back.
I’ll probably never go back to Sicily again. It’s definitely *not* the greatest place on earth, that’s for sure. But, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that I understand infinitely more now, why my father is the way he is.
And maybe that was the whole point.