From Sydney to Sicily: Beyond Google Images
I first left my Sydney’s Northern Beaches life at age fifteen. The High School’s sand scattered campus literally backed onto Avalon Beach. Our Biology teacher would sit us around the ocean rock pools, whilst behind us, in the Pacific, whales migrated, dolphins frolicked and sharks fed. Students snickered over weekend stories and made plans for the next one. I was stuck in a momentum, restarting, every seven days.
Mum (surprisingly ‘having’ to keep her youngest daughter enthusiastic) suggest I take an exchange program overseas. Without much thought, I choose the destination, unaware, it was to set the path of my entire life. I flew into Palermo airport and spotted my name in a sea of scribbled cardboard signs. “Benvenuto Clo, wel-come to-a the fam-ily” Giuseppe pronounced each letter of his only English. “Presente la Mamma Angela, Sisters; Nadia, Gloria, Marta, and Brothers; Emmanuelle, Pietro and bambino Giampaolo.” Smiles flickered between their dark brown eyes to my green ones. These were the people I was now sharing my bathroom with, my bedroom and my life with.
We drove south through dry acres of raw farmland, beaten up, half-empty concrete houses, roads spoilt with plastic bottles and rubbish that had been hurled from cars. The road signs were dog-eared, some hanging above women in cheater print mini-skirts and plastic high heels. Once, Giuseppe slowed down close to one of these women, kept the window closed, but held out his finger and said something in Italian, about Christ. The images I had googled of the transparent Mediterranean were replaced with the port of Gela, large oil tankers, and black smoke. I felt naive. Sixteen thousand kilometres from home and nostalgia had me looking at Italy, through dirty glasses.
Soon, the Rose covered diary my (unrelated but feeling so) Aunty, Martha, had given me before I left became my place for connection. The little book was a remedy for my homesickness and a friend. I filled it with scrunched up napkins, scrawled drawings that I used for communication, and souvenirs (You know those novelty sized spoons resident to all Italian gelato stores?). Looking at it now reminds me of a little girl in a new world. Pink gel pens marked the countdown, and as it got smaller, my appreciation for Gela, only grew. Its beauty began to unravel.
My daily walks home from school, I was hit by the smell of cooking tomatoes, laughter, anger, tears ricocheting down the broken concrete alleyways. It conjured up images, of people feeling their life. I anticipated lunch, a three-course meal, but more so the daily debate, banter that bounced across the table. I noticed the intensity of concentration, as family members recounted the triumphs and tribulations of their days. I dreamt in another language. I uncovered another version of myself, one that didn’t need to fit in, a listener, an introvert, a learner, and generally, more interested in life.
Those six months abroad had me yearning for uncomfortable situations and looking beyond the ‘googled image’ of a destination. I found the tranquility in Los Angeles, the insensitivity in New York, the cold perfection in Banff and the warm chaos in Marrakesh. I was curious to see more of the world, so slept under the stars in the Sahara Desert and pitched my tent hundreds of times across Europe. The curiosity led me to rural Western Australia and manicured Niagara, to learn about wine, my passion, and career.
Mostly, it fired me with a deep connection and respect for Italy, for the people who feel greatly in life. Their exuberance, their melodic rhythm of voice, is so infectious that it left me numb not being in presence of it. Between my worldly travels, I somehow always end up back here, in 2011, 2013, 2015 & 2016, where I met the man of my dreams, and now call Rome my home.For me, Italy is like a theme park, drawing in excursionists, a unique ride for every visitor. The Costiera Amalfitana, dramatic limestone rocks, with iconic pink flowers, plummeting into an aqua sea. Naples, a sensational overload, a city built on one of the world’s most dangerous super volcanoes, almost symbolic, to the overwhelming life felt in Italy’s South. The Alpine territory, green forest walks, a scene out of Mary Poppins. Venice, a timeless museum, a floating city, that soon will remain a Scuba Diver’s dream. Rome, ‘a poem pressed into service as a city’. Florence, the best sunsets admired from Piazza Michelangelo, orange and pink hues illuminate the Renaissance skyline. Tuscany, the summer fireflies cruise around the clusters of lemon trees, olive groves, and medieval towns. Sienna, street lamps reflecting a moonlight glow, guiding you through a cobblestone maze that reveals hidden trinkets, of a Christian dominated past. Lazio, cities built upon hilltops, filling your imagination with stories, of Kings protecting their villages from the onset of wars. Trieste, the architecture reminding you of an Austro-Hungarian-Slovenian history, a gem the Italian’s are lucky to claim. The unrefined Sardinian red deserted hills, meet the translucent Tyrrhenian Sea. The best parts of this Country, I have no doubt, are still yet to be exposed to me.
On a recent trip back home to Sydney, I watched a whale dance along the horizon line. I wondered what would be if I never left the safety of those rock pools. Close to family, friends, opportunity, a pristine land full of open space, then someone text my phone, and awakened me as I read, “What’s the plans for the weekend?”.