Friday, May 1, 2009

Adventures in Sicily

Although I spend most of my time talking about my Calabrian roots here at La Mia Famiglia, there is a whole other story to be told about grandmother’s side of the family. That story has its origins in a town called Santo Stefano di Camastra (ME), Sicily. Santo Stefano is a small town of about 4,500 inhabitants and it lies on the northern coast of the island about half way between the cities of Palermo and Messina. Ask a Sicilian if they know Santo Stefano, and they will probably tell you, “Si, il paese della ceramica (The town of ceramics.).”

A few weeks ago, Cheerye at My Bella Vita was conducting a poll for her Travel Tips Tuesday blog post. Because I have only spent two weeks in Italy, I felt limited about my participation in her poll. Nonetheless, it occurred to me that I did have an amusing piece of advice to offer, even if it was outdated and no longer really applicable in the year 2009. You see, I was in Italy back in 1992, a time when cell phones were still not widely used. Back in those days, foreign travelers, especially poor students like myself, relied on public phones. Or at least we tried to rely on them, when they actually worked.

Back in 1992, my arrival to my grandmother’s village was facilitated by the use of several modes of transportation. I took a plane from Rome to the Punta Raisi Palermo airport, a bus from the airport to the Palermo Centrale train station, and then a train from Palermo Centrale to the station in Santo Stefano. Being the organized young woman that I was, I carried my aunt’s telephone number in my backpack and I planned to call her as soon as I got off the train in Santo Stefano.

I remember when I arrived in Santo Stefano, I was amazed by the altitude of the cliffs that hugged the train station which was down at the base of the incline. It seemed that the town was nestled above overlooking the Tyrrhenian coast. I could see a Vespa making its way up and around the hairpin turns.

I got off the train and I entered a small, one room train station. I happened to arrive right about siesta time, and there was not a soul to be found except for the train attendant in a little office.

I entered the phone booth directly across from his view and I picked up the receiver. No dial tone. I called his attention and said in my basic Italian,

“Excuse me, Sir, the telephone doesn’t work.”

He shrugged his shoulders. I walked over to his office and looked through the glass window to see if he had a phone.

“Sir, may I use your telephone so I can call my relatives? They are waiting for me to call so they can come and pick me up.”

“The phone in my office doesn’t work either.”

My emotion started to build up at this point. The attendant seemed uninterested in helping me. The only suggestion he could make was that I go into town to find a phone.

I stepped outside the train station and looked around. There was no town in sight, only the village at the top of the cliff. It would to take close to 30 minutes to climb up that road, and I had a backpack and a heavy suitcase. Oh, and did I mention that it had to be at least 90 degrees outside?

The tears started rolling and my Italian went from bad to worse.

“Sir, please, I just came from Spain. I am from another country and I have never been here before.”

I started to understand him less as my emotions intensified. What the hell could he need to do at this time of day in his office? No phone, no television, no travelers, just a stranded American girl with no way to get to her aunt Concetta’s house because the public phone didn’t work in the train station. Couldn’t he lend a helping hand?

“Per favore, signore, ho bisogno di chiamare. Come posso parlare con mia zia si non funziona il telefono qui?”

Tears turned to sobs as I paced nervously around the small room. When would the next train come? Would there be a passenger getting off? Could that person help me?

“Signore, couldn’t you drive me up to the town to a phone? Per favore…”

I think he sensed the desperation in my voice and started to soften up a bit. Suddenly he stood up in his office and looked at me with a serious face. He opened the door, looked at my luggage, and dragged it in the little cubicle without saying a word.

I followed him outside as I dried my tears. It seemed there was some hope. He was going to do something for me, but what? I looked around in the parking lot and I saw no cars. My first thought was, “Is he driving me up the mountain?”

Sure enough, Mr. Train Attendant pulled out a Vespa from the side of the building. He jumped on and signaled for me to hop on behind him. I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing, I just got on the Vespa and we took off towards the road leading up to Santo Stefano.

With my arms wrapped around the waist of a stranger, we made our way up the hill in the blazing hot sun. I put all precautions aside with this Vespa trip; no helmet, an Italian stranger, and no idea where we were going. I could only hope he would be taking me to a working phone so I could finally call my family.

We arrived at the first plaza at the top of the hill. He zipped right up to the public phone and didn’t even get off the moped. He picked up the receiver and listened. No dial tone. Madre mia, where am I that none of the phones work!

We continued to drive through what appeared to be ghost town. No one was outside because it was so hot. It must have been a Sunday too because all the businesses were closed.

As we approached the next plaza, I could see another phone booth. Would we be lucky this time? I was starting to think I might never see my relatives. He picked up the receiver again. This time there was a dial tone. It was a small miracle. I dished out some coins and I showed him the telephone number. He dialed and waited until he heard a ringing sound. As soon as he heard the ring, he passed me the phone. After about the fifth ring, my aunt picked up.

“Concetta! Sono Jennifer! Sono qui a Santo Stefano.” (Concetta! It’s me, Jennifer. I am here in Santo Stefano.)

“Vengo subito.” (I am coming right away.) And she hung up.

I smiled and thanked the train attendant. He acknowledged my few words and gesture and we made our way back down the mountain, back to the train station where I would wait for my aunt to arrive.

I sat patiently waiting on a bench outside the train station. Concetta arrived shortly after I did. Two planes, one bus, one train, and one Vespa later, I had finally been united with my aunt Concetta.

2 Days Later

Not having the ability to explain to my relatives what had happened to me in the train station, I left the ordeal behind me. I certainly didn’t want them to worry either. They might think I am some crazy American girl if they actually knew what I had to do to find a working telephone.

As life would have it though, hidden stories have a funny way of making themselves known when we least expect it. Two days after my arrival, I was seated at the big dinner table with all my relatives. They conversed about the news of the town, and I was able to understand pieces of their conversation.

At some point, my older cousin, a student at the University of Palermo, started to talk about when he arrived by train the day after my arrival. He explained that the phones were not working and he had to walk up the hill to find another public phone. I was so proud that I understood everything he said, I nodded and agreed with him. He looked at me quite surprised and said,

“So, the phones weren’t working when you arrived? How did you call the house?”

We sat in silence for a moment. All eyes were on me as they waited for an explanation as to how I had made a phone call if all the phones were dead.

I was horrified. How would I explain this story? What would they think of me getting on the Vespa of a stranger?

“Eh, c’e un uomo e un moto.” (Well, there is a man and a moped.)

They looked at me with concern. I gesticulated with my hands the rest of the story and I threw in some motorcycle sounds to explain that I had gone up the zigzagging hill on a moped with a man from the train station. Nobody said much. They all looked at me as if they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. I stopped my story and smiled in embarrassment.

And so, that is my story about my arrival to Santo Stefano. If it were still 1992, I would tell you to not rely on public telephones. But clearly, this is a story that dates itself. And it dates me.

No such thing will happen when I return in October 2009, vero?

1 comment:

  1. What a great story, Jennifer! It reminded me of all the time spent and tears shed trying to make international phone calls from Europe in the late 1980s. The days of the central phone stations are long gone. They made great stories!


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