You step off the bus, some two hours from Palermo. You finger the return schedule in your pocket. Lercara Fridi has no welcome center. Your feet follow your eyes to a florist who features local ceramics. The owner greets you in the language you practiced for months but can only scrape basic meanings. Like listening to a conversation behind a closed door.
Confidence builds as you pay for an 8-inch oval ceramic with a hand-painted, crimson octopus on the front. Its eyes are cartooned and looking behind you. Your practiced paragraph glides out of your mouth. It speaks of great grandparents. It describes your intent. She hands you the phone book. You thumb to the “Ds” then down the page to your last name. There’s one entry.
She walks you out the door. With no map your hope is a small flicker. She calls out, “Giovani, vieni qua”. Two teens, with no sign of any agenda, lumber closer. You deliver the paragraph again. A small, four door rolls up. It’s colored in a shade of green only popular in the 70’s. The driver jumps out.
Two boys climb in the back and wave you into the passenger seat. The sound of rubber tires over cobblestones and the cooling breeze tempers the uncertainty.
You stop at the driver’s house. Inside you rescue the driver from a beating with your paragraph. The older teen’s face places him as brother and his fists as car owner. You wonder if “wife-beater” t-shirts were designed in Sicily.
Outside, you and your threesome find the same places in the car.
A short drive ends at a doorway with a faded pink curtain. The driver enters as you sit with window down. Their words have no purchase on your ears. You realize that your paragraph will not be enough. You realize that dinner with lost relatives was never more than a fantasy. Your mouth dries and palms moisten. You say a silent prayer.
He comes back to the vehicle. It takes a couple tosses of broken language to realize she is not interested. All eyes turn to you. Feeling relieved, you make a suggestion. The literal translation is to “make a picture of the town”. You expect to be driven the hilltop. To see the river and the sun washed homes.
Instead the driver motors onto the freeway. Your pulse increases as he leans into the gas pedal. You calculate the speed at which a tuck-and-roll would be successful. You estimate your marathon fitness at 27 years old relative to three early teens who probably hadn’t run since gym class.
The driver pulls over to the widening shoulder. Stepping out of the car it becomes clear. They boys wave their arms as Lercara Fridi sets the backdrop. You gain their permission and point the 35mm Cannon at them. You switch positions with one of the boys because you insist to be seen with them. The remaining clicks capture golden light licking the town.
You ask to be taken back to the piazza where it all began. You want the moment to end quickly so you can memorize every detail.
You doodle in a notebook until there is no more light on the bus. You conclude two things: It is unwise to enter a foreign place with just a paragraph. And sometimes sharing a name is not required to unlock a family story.
– Anthony Dina