Eight hours on a bus from Lecce to the southwest tip of Italy. I could finally see the outline of the island of Sicily in the distance. How many times have I dreamt of this moment. Shortly after, the bus pulled into a line of autos and I watched the huge ferry inch closer. My face pressed against the window.
Once the bus was securely parked on the ground level, I ran up the stairs to the upper deck. It was a very windy evening, so only a few stood against the rail with me. It blew so forcefully that it pushed me back a few steps when I did not anchor hands to rail. The final resistance before a dream could be realized. “I’m here.” I spoke partly to myself and maybe partly to a grandfather I never met. The wind carried the words away for no one to hear. Tears stung my eyes, perhaps from the force of the wind; but perhaps not.
As I took my first steps onto the island I could not help but feel the weight of history flow through each footfall. These are the first steps my family has taken here since it left. A century ago in a much harsher time, my family also stepped off of a boat. Leaving this island and all that they knew behind, in hopes for the American dream. What were their thoughts as they signed that paper on Ellis Island? What did they feel? Fear? Excitement? Longing?
I dropped off my bag and wandered the city at night. I stepped into a restaurant and saw that there were no customers. It was only seven, still early for an Italian dinner. The waiter was welcoming and I tested new words to order my meal. Then I explained to the waiter why I was in Sicily, about the family that left Palermo so long ago. He smiled broadly and immediately gave suggestions on how to find them. He was invested in the story. He topped off my wine glass in celebration of my first night in Sicily.
Today I explored Messina by day, hugging my camera close as usual. An article online suggested seeing the Duomo and then a small bakery nearby where you could find amazing cannoli . As I walked I noticed that people seem to smile a lot here. Their dress is far more casual than northern Italy, a sentiment that a mound of clothes in a backpack can agree with. The people laugh longer and speak louder in general. Though it is a city, people seem to know one another, saying “Ciao! Ciao!” as they pass on the streets. The air is warm and the people are relaxed.
After visiting the Duomo square I searched many streets looking for the bakery. As I wandered and took pictures I heard a shout from behind me. I saw a man hanging from his window, encouraging me in playful tongue to also take a picture of him. We laughed together as I snapped a shot.
I turned the corner and stopped an elderly woman to ask her in Italian where I could find the best cannoli. Immediately her eyes lit up in a way reminiscent of a delighted child. She was small and slightly bent. Her face was inviting and pleasant, spattered with deep wrinkles that showed years of laughter. She spoke no English but she chatted away in Sicilian, took me by the arm, and personally escorted me a few streets away to the bakery.
While we walked I once again explained my story in broken Italian. And once again she was invested in the story. We exchanged names, her’s being Lily. Inside the shop, she told the owner that I was looking for the best cannoli. I tried to ask her if she would like a cannoli, but before I could get the words out of my mouth she had already pulled a few coins from her small change purse and paid the owner. She smiled widely as they handed me the treasure in the form of cream and dough.
Outside the bakery the tiny woman grabbed both of my hands, covering them with hers. She looked me straight in the eyes and spoke. Her eyes twinkled and the laugh lines stood out proudly. I could not understand her words, but I picked up enough to know that she was speaking a blessing over me. My eyes stung with tears again, and this time I knew that it could not be the wind.
Lily walked away and I knew that this was another life moment that I would never forget. This woman that took time to welcome me and speak over this journey.
As I walked back to pick up my bag and head for Palermo, I stopped at a fruit stand to buy a peach. The owner would not let me give him the coins for it. He told me instead to take it and enjoy. My first 24 hours back on the land of my family and I feel as if I am being welcomed home and nudged forward on the journey.