When you think of Sicily, what comes to mind? For me, it’s a curious mixture of things: the dreaded ‘clan’, Mount Etna, cannoli and some seriously glowing mosaics, sweet Marsala wine drunk IN Marsala, ancient Greek temples and being so sick that I couldn’t speak. The first time I visited the island at the bottom of Italy’s boot, it was with my fine and decorative arts class. Our tutors, a pair of ill-matched career academics whose love of art was their only real common ground, felt that our studies would benefit from the variety of artistic and archaeological styles present in Sicily, and so, one April a short lifetime ago, off to Sicily we went.
In our small lecture theatre at the Auction House School, one ambitious germ managed to infect most of the class, so we were far from the most popular passengers on our charter flight. In fact, the amount of coughing and sneezing and nose-blowing for which our small group was responsible meant that we received a number of death glares and dagger stares during the trip, and one man seated a little too close to us for his own comfort took to breathing through his handkerchief.
It’s probably a good thing that this was an evening flight, because the drop out of the sky, directly over the water and plop onto the precarious seaside runway of Palermo’s airport is somewhat frightening when you can see what’s going on. We were sick enough without worrying about missing the runway and sinking into the sea. A coach collected us from the airport and drove us into town, where we’d be staying at a hotel on the Via Vittorio Emmanuele, not far from the Cathedral and a central base from which to explore. En route, weary and still coughing, we pressed our noses to the windows, watching the lights and trying to work out where land met sea.
Above the ground floor of our hotel, the layout was more than a little challenging, comprising disorienting tangles of corridors. The simple rooms were clean and neat with polished linoleum floors and crisp, clean bed linen. Downstairs, the lobby spoke of better times with a quiet but tired luxury – creamy marble floors, bright, brass light fittings and a wood-panelled bar from which our welcome drinks were served. By this time, my throat had swollen to the point that I couldn’t talk without extreme discomfort. Sipping on a juice, I ventured briefly into conversation with a hoarse whisper before giving up.
“It’s so strange to see you so quiet,” commented the course administrator, “usually, we can’t shut you up!” I tried to join in the resulting laughter, but it just about choked me. I couldn’t even conceive of eating with the others as that would require swallowing. It was time to take some medicine and go to bed.
Pity my poor, patient roommates over the course of the next week. I was one of the worst afflicted of the group and there was no way that anyone could possibly sleep through my night-time cough. It’s a small wonder that Christina and Sarah didn’t hold a pillow over my face and wait for my breathing to stop. Given the swelling in my neck, the murder wouldn’t have taken long and then they might have benefited from some uninterrupted sleep. As it was, each morning we were all completely wiped out which was a shame because Christina and Sarah weren’t even sick. I felt horrible for them.
In light of this plague, there is one place which is tattooed into my memory for all the wrong reasons. We’d spent the morning on the coach, following the twisty-turny roads into Sicily’s hinterland. I’d had just about enough twisty-turny for one day and was dying to get off the bus. Cue the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’. No sooner were we parked up in the hilltop town of Enna than I wished myself back on the bus in one of its warm seats. Enna, located literally IN the clouds, was quite a few degrees colder than the coastal areas. Still unaccustomed to the in-between seasons of the northern hemisphere, I was ready for spring, dressed optimistically in chinos, a cotton tee and a cotton jumper. Unlike the seasoned travelling couple in our midst who had come prepared with clever little bum bag anoraks, I was now not only sick but also turning an attractive shade of lavender with the cold. This, my friends, was a prime recipe for pneumonia.
‘No problemo!’ chirped my trusty sidekick, Sandra, once we’d dutifully shivered at the lookout point and returned to find a locked bus, no driver in sight. ‘Let’s just find a cafe and wait,’ And so we did, but coffees in Italy, unless otherwise specified, tend to be short black. Our coffees were drunk in a shot and the proprietor chose that time to close for his own break (or perhaps he didn’t like the sound of my phlegmy bark). So, Sandra and I were back on the street, in the freezing cold, with insufficient clothing and the best part of an hour to kill before the museum opened. Our touring compatriots, meanwhile, dressed wisely in layers, were enjoying an amble through the picturesque little town, impervious, it would seem, to the altitudinal weather conditions. Never before and never again since have I felt so bone-chillingly cold as I did that day. My advice to visitors to Sicily? Take some warm layers with you if you intend to visit hilly areas away from the coast. Make that MANY warm layers. Anything’s better than feeling like a walking experiment in cryogenics like I did that day in Enna.
To redeem the Arctic Enna, there is a wonderful little archaeological museum there called the Alessi, with large windows looking out across Sicily, down to the (warm) coast. One of our tutors had a favourite game for museum visits such as this, where he’d pick one of us at random and ask us to describe a particular object – his choice, not yours. This felt great when you followed a logical formula of starting at the top of a statue, say, and working your way down, commenting on style and features and, where appropriate, anatomy and dress; Michael liked that sort of methodical analysis. The same exercise could be excruciating, however, if you started with the hands, zig-zagged between eyes and feet and back to knees, mis-identifying style of costume or era of manufacture, with the pain of Michael’s tough-love criticism exacerbated by hovering museum visitors who thought they’d stumbled across a tour with Someone Who Knew What They Were Talking About.
There, in the museum with arguably the best view in Sicily, in a freezing little town at the top of the island, it was Carol’s turn. Carol had a lilting American accent with a barely perceptible Southern-ness to it, long brown curls and a wardrobe so filled with colour that it reminded me of Seventeen Magazine. That day, Michael asked Carol to describe an ancient object of Carthaginian origin. For anyone who hasn’t read the Aeneid, Carthage is an ancient country which, if it still existed, would be just across the Med in North Africa, hence the probable reason for this object turning up in Sicily. Enna itself had a colourful relationship with Carthage; it allied itself with Syracuse against Carthage, then in 259BC it was taken over by Carthaginians and was ruled by them for a year until the Romans came to the rescue. Unfortunately, this knowledge, which had been drummed into us in preparation for our field trip to the island off the boot, seemed to have evaporated out of Carol’s head. She ummed, she aahed. Sensing the need for a prompt, Michael stepped forward.
“Why don’t you start with where the object is from, Carol.”
“It’s from Ancient Mesopotamia,” Carol began and we all cringed, knowing full well what lay ahead.
“How do you KNOW it’s from Mesopotamia?” Michael asked, luring poor Carol into a spiny trap.
“Oh, it’s because of the style, and the fact that Mesopotamia was a sea-faring nation, so their sailors travelled up and down the Mediterranean on their ships, trading with different places, like Sicily.”
If the word ‘Carthage’ had been substituted for ‘Mesopotamia’, Carol would have been just fine, but by mixing up the names of her nations, she was now in the midst of a train wreck of Mesopotamian proportions and no one could help her out of it. FYI Mesopotamia is another ancient country, roughly equating to where Iraq is now. No sea to speak of. No reason for ships. No discernible trade with an island nation such as Sicily. Help.
“So, Carol,” Michael had a devious glint in his eye, “tell me, now. Where IS Mesopotamia?”
Carol was still calm. “It’s just across the Mediterranean.”
“More detail, please. Where EXACTLY across the Mediterranean is Mesopotamia?”
“You know, where Tunisia is now.”
The hole was getting deeper and soon Carol would be buried alive.
“Tell me then, Carol. For what is Mesopotamia best known?”
By now it was obvious, even to Carol, that Michael’s sarcasm was ready for a rampage. This only happened when we were wrong. Previously calm, Carol began to twitch and her bottom lip quivered a bit.
“Well, um, like I said, they’re a sea-faring nation and they traded a lot in the Med and they also went to war a lot.”
That wasn’t the answer our tutor had wanted. In an ideal world, Carol would have mentioned Ur and lapis lazuli and cuneiform script, even though Mesopotamia had nothing to do with the object at hand. Michael raised his eyebrows as he looked away from Carol, casting a glance around the room.
“Can anyone help Carol here?” he asked with a groan.
One girl bit her nails with nerves, looking at the ground lest he pick on her next. I can’t remember who it was now, but some smart-arse was thrilled to correct Carol’s mistakes and explain the differences between Carthage and Mesopotamia. Carol stood still and red-faced, in the full knowledge that she was well and truly toast. How she retained her composure was beyond me, but one thing’s for sure: I would rather be cold in Enna on any day of the year, rather than be roasted by Michael in the warmth of its museum.