When I was a little girl, my grandparents read to me many fairy tales. Actually, I can’t count how many times the poor people had to re-read to me over and over again “Pippi the long stocking”, “Tom Sayer and Huckleberry Fin”, “Marco Polo”, “Sinbad the sailor” etc. Not sure to what extent this played a role, but throughout my life my imagination always ran wild and I was in a constant search for adventures. As often life surprises you, I actually ended up spending most of my 30s stuck to an office desk, staring at excel spreadsheets and analyzing numbers, whose color formatting was much more exciting to me than their quantitative meaning. I was doing a job I went to business school for, offering safety and a big paycheck, but that never felt fulfilling or meaningful. With time I was questioning whose life I was living, and deep inside I knew there must be more to life than this. I always kept an inspirational card on my desk or someone’s travel blog on one of my screens. One of my favorite cards said “Create a life you don’t want to take a vacation from”. One day after re-reading it for the hundredth time, I quit my job and got on a plane to Italy.
No I wasn’t on an “Eat, Pray, Love” trip. On that note, I wish someone wrote a book about having to go through a devastating breakup and re-define life when they still had to: “exceed” at their 16-houra day job; sleep a max of 5 hours a day because your upstairs neighbors are having a healthy sexual life; your emotional state means nothing to the client deadline; your vacation is a long weekend to California if you are lucky; you live in the same apartment you shared with your ex because it is just too expensive to go anywhere else; your friends are too busy with their own problems; you are pushing mid 30s and everyone seems to be talking about freezing their eggs, and then there is the hot blond skinny girl, half your age, who comes late to yoga, slaps her matt on top of yours and insists you are invading her space while her cell phone keeps going off with okcupid messages throughout shivasana. Yes I was in search of an adventure, but more so on a trip to remember who Tina was.
Sicily was always one of those fascinating for me destination which gave anxiety to my dad. Yet, I didn’t know what to expect. I had already travelled extensively through Italy - Toscana, Liguria, Amalfi Coast, le Marche, Sardinia etc. and wasn’t sure anything could be all that much more impressive. After a two day trip through planes, buses, trains, ferries and a donkey which gracefully carried my luggage up the cliff, I ended up in the amazing island of Stromboli, in the middle of the Eolian archipelago. I am not sure what is the thing that makes this place amazing: whether it is the live volcano, the constant life on the edge, in a battle with nature; the fascinating personalties of the local people; the black sand on the beach; the deep calming energy which attracts the stressed people from Rome, Milan and Naples (as well as D&G who have a house there); or maybe the fact that electricity made it to one part of the island only 10 years ago. Whatever it is, I had never seen anything like it in any of the fairy tales I grew up with.
From a distance, the island looks like a scene from “Jurassic Park” - a perfect triangle of a green peak protruding from the sea, clouds of smoke coming out from the top. The volcano has its own name “Iddu”, and the local people speak to him as if he was a live being. For example: you are in a boat at midnight under a sky full of stars, floating on a sea glowing with plancton with the hope of spotting the orange lava eruption; your skipper, whom you have no right to doubt because the guy was able to navigate the boat at full speed in pitch darkness and he is your only way back to shore, starts yelling in Sicilian dialect “Come on Iddu, give us a beat to make the guests happy”. In reality, Iddu erupts quite regularly, almost every 15 minutes and you can hear him from afar. Every few years Iddu erupts massively. Three years ago there was such a strong eruption, the lava was running from the top of the peak straight into the sea for several days in a row. A bunch of National Geographic photographers were camping in boats taking pictures for a week having the time of their life, while the locals were being evacuated not only because of the ash and fumes but in addition, to avoid the tsunami, which occurs as a post-effect.
While I was there, the volcano behaved. Tourists were enjoying their frutti di mare pizza in the outskirts of the volcano witnessing small lava fireworks every few minutes. I climbed the volcano 1000 meters up, to the point where you can see the three craters from just a few hundred meters away. The fumes and heat are unbearable up there, and you have black sand grinding your feet up to the knees. Regardless, it is an amazing sight, and you really feel you are experiencing something magical.
Actually the story is not about the volcano, it is about Mario - a fisherman, artist, house builder, volcano explorer, actor and more than anything else - an amazing human being. You can spot him already from the ferry as you are approaching the small port. He looks like Santa Clause in shorts. His white hair and beard are shining in the sun and his unusually strong (for a 70 year old) body is glowing in the sun as he skillfully ties the ropes up.
Mario has four brothers, all of them fishermen during the summers, and during the winter they do whatever there is to be done on the island: build homes, bake bread, take scientists up to the craters and back for a time embarrassingly shorter than what it takes me. When you look into his face, you are not exactly sure what you are seeing: a mix of nature, a human, the universe, primal instincts mixed with unbelievable spirituality and inner power.
I spent every morning in the beach with Mario and his brothers, as they were coming back from the sea with their freshly caught fish. They were telling me how they fix their boats, how to clean fish, how to arrange nets, which fish shines in the dark and what real corals look like. Their grandfather had gone to “America” in the 50s when families from the islands immigrated “en mass” to the US, Australia and New Zealand. Then there were the stories about all the movies, books and TV shows which came to record their unique and fascinating way of life.
I wanted to ask all sorts of questions, yet I was tongue tied and wished to be invisible around them. I didn’t want to interrupt in any way their daily rituals, the tranquility and beauty of their simple being. Mario took me to his home, where I met his wife and saw his paintings - impressive shapes, colors and interpretations of the forces of nature, the volcano, the sea and the winds. Unfortunately the paintings were not for sale, they were his own personal inspirations and belonged in his home.
I didn’t want to leave Stromboli. It was so hard for me to leave this magical world behind. It was surreal and the opposite of everything I was trying to escape from. Although I did not comprehend much of their Sicilian Italian, although I was “fresh off the corporate boat” of New York, I felt so close to them. All of a sudden everything seemed so clear and simple. The issues which you spend days, weeks and years analyzing in the big city; on which you meditate, see your shrink about, go to yoga, suffer through acupuncture, do juice cleanses, you measure and question… even tough you have money, an apartment, you don’t live under the constant threat of an erupting volcano, your running water is not delivered by boat every other week, the closest hospital is not 3 islands over and you can only reach it by helicopter in extreme cases… At the end, the meaning of life is the right to be happy, to love and be loved, to feel useful, needed and respected, to create a family, to live within a community, to enjoy the simple things because sooner or later we all die and nothing is left behind.
Mario gave me a red starfish as a present which he fished from the sea that morning. It was still moving in my hand as the island was disappearing on the horizon. He told me to go back in May when the part of the volcano not covered by black sand, is covered with flowers. There are no tourists yet, hotels are cheap, you can see dolphins and sea turtles and most of all I have a reserved spot in their boat to go fishing at 5 am. I am already counting the days until I see them again. Even though I am not anymore the western girl, looking to cure herself from chronic stress, developed in closed offices over dusty desks, living a lonely life in a giant city; I am sure I will learn yet again and so much more in a different way. The same way I always found something new, as my grandfather was re-reading me the same fairy tale for the 86th time.