The Home for Wayward Travellers
I knew Casa Verdi was the right place for me. It chose me. I was not altogether happy about its choice, but still, I could have gone somewhere else and I stayed, because despite the problems, the place charmed me.
Sicily charmed me. Catania charmed me. I felt overstuffed with Roman grandeur and fancy buildings, and Catania was gritty, decayed, deteriorated, weathered, and edgy bordering on sketchy (sometimes it didn’t just border; the area near my hostel in the wrong direction was sketchy as fuck). Catania reminded me of ghetto-fabulous Buenos Aires.
After pretty Venice and sober Ferrara and grand Rome, Catania from the Block was a delicious breath of funky fresh air.
I reminded myself of the dog ravenously snuffling in the crotch of his human after the human hasn’t bathed for days and has just gotten back from all kinds of suspicious adventures, and the dog happily exults, “you have never smelled more interesting!”
Once when I was in the Giardini di Bellini I heard a local trying to pick up some German girls (because as Couchsurfing has proven, “foreigner” is as definite and obvious a sexual predilection as “blonde” or “nice hands” — and makes even more sense, because someone from another tribe is more likely to have different DNA from one’s own and thus produce healthier offspring). He said, “so what do you think of Catania?” And the poor German girl said with mournful distaste that she found it dirty. A German of my own acquaintance said, with similar mournful distaste, that he found it disorganized. (Quelle horreur!)
I could see how the Germans would definitely think these things and how hard such suffering must be on their national character. But for me they were nonissues. I already had my old Italy Microchip reinstalled on my motherboard, plus I had Argentina for extra reference, plus — and I cannot underestimate the importance of this — by now I had spent years turning my life into a daily meditation practice. So I was down with this Italian Deep South, with its Piano Piano that would have driven me crazy at another time in my life, with its dog poop and broken glass and discarded syringes, with its busses that never came, and with its panoply of practical challenges. I was as happy as a pig in shit — which surprised me because I did not plan on loving Sicily.
But I did love it!
I was not planning on loving Casa Verdi either. A hostel, please, I am a 41-year-old mother, I don’t stay in hostels. But I was surprised how easy it was to sleep in a room with five other people in it. I had inspected the photos before booking and was pleased to see that they were not bunk beds. I had learned my lesson about bunk beds in Portland. You hear and feel everything the other person does. But since this one did not have them, I took a chance. And, amazingly, nobody woke me.
Being awake however was another matter. It was hard being awake in the room because no matter what time of day it was there was always someone sleeping, and the door creaked, and the bedsteads creaked, and I had the noisiest plastic bags ever made, and also the loudest luggage zippers.
But if you had seen the room you would have forgiven it anything!
It was a typical Baroque Sicilian room, with a fourteen-foot high ceiling to let the heat rise. The ceiling was a delight, with plaster roses and painted scenes of the countryside, and colorful and elaborate borders. Theydon’t make ceilings like that any more and I loved staring at it before I went to sleep. French window-doors opening onto the lava-grey courtyard, spiced up here and there with gaily coloured laundry hanging outside of other people’s French window-doors. The walls were a cheery peach that you can get away with when you’re a Baroque Sicilian room, and the bedsteads were curly wrought iron in bluish aqua. A single askew photo of Holly Golightly adorned the wall in a por hazardo way…and I realized why she was the perfect poster child for the room. The runaway dreamer who built an elegant life for herself and loved her freedom, then learned to connect with others.
Outside someone had painted “you are the person you choose to be” in elegant black cursive on the wall. I suspected Davide, whose WhatsApp had the slogan “eat, pray, love” and who said, when I mourned that I was different and wanted to be the same as all the others (when I couldn’t open the door others could open), “we are all different.” When he said it I knew he was talking about a dominant theme of his life.
There were only two bathrooms, which got old, especially when my toothbrush and contacts were waiting for me in one and people had the audacity to use the bathroom. I also suspected I had a UTI, and so far I had never seen cranberry juice in Italy. More bathrooms would have been nice.
But the limited bathroomability was more than compensated for by the charming way the innkeepers dealt with my passport. Much as I wanted to be a friend of humanity and demonstrate my trust in strangers by leaving all my valuables in an unlocked room full of continually rotating strangers, I wanted to get back to America and my son even more, so I asked them to lock up my passport somewhere and they had no idea what to do with such a request since no one had ever asked such a thing before and they had no safe. Ultimately they offered to keep the passport in their private room, “and you can visit it whenever you want, to see how it’s doing!”
I hung out my laundry with everyone else’s on the lines on the wide balcony outside the kitchen and living room. The exchange for letting the whole world see my underwear was that I got to see theirs too. Not sure how I felt about that degree of intimacy but that’s how it was. And then one morning I hung clothes out to dry and in the evening they magically appeared carefully folded and placed on the gold velvet ottoman at the foot of my bed. Someone knew they were mine.
One morning a blond Englishman and his young dark son were sitting at the chess table on the balcony, both clad in just shorts. He was teaching the little boy to play chess, and both were wrapt in the game with total absorption. It was such an English thing to do, and yet its chillaxed “of course we are playing chess on a balcony in Sicily, what in the world else would we be doing with our time,” attitude was totally cosmopolitan. That boy will grow up a citoyen du monde.
I was surprised when what started as a women’s dormitory turned into an everybody dormitory. But I had no complaints because the men who slept next to me were young and handsome (or at least I assumed they would be if they hadn’t fallen prey to this disastrous European trend for gigantic bushy beards) and had nice bodies and cute accents. So, you know, the more the merrier.
I have intentionally buried the lead. Yes, this was the place where I could not open the door. I tried for an hour with both innkeepers at my side showing me and I could not do it, and the next day my fingers were purple and numb from effort. We tried with different variations of the same key. I could turn the lock when the door was open, but when it was closed, it was impossible. There was hardware in the way. It could not be done. I have no idea how they did it, and I was the only one there with this situation. Every other guest could open the door fine.
Sometimes we need other people to open the door for us, and we have to trust that they will come and do it.
And every night someone did come along, although it was a different guy every night, and every night I had to wait anxiously in the dark wondering how long it would take someone to wake up or if they would wake up at all or if I would have to sleep on the sisal doormat. Someone always came.
Casa Verdi was much like Sicily in general. It was charming, it didn’t work well, it was full of character, it was disorganized, it was Piano Piano.
But this was what I came for. I came to see Davide in his multi-flowered shorts and rainbow socks. Give me that, and I will put up with a lot.
Casa Verdi, and Sicily, was all about ghetto-rigging. Things don’t work and you figure out a way around that, that usually involves depending on other people. Nobody in the whole city knew when the bus came (“it’s a secret,” Massimo said), so I walked from town to the festival every day, and that involved depending on drivers not to hit me when I had to walk in the street (it was more like a highway) because the melon sellers took up the whole sidewalk and half of the right lane with their produce. I couldn’t use my key, so the people at the Casa woke up in the dead of night every night to let me in. When on the last night I had forgotten my key altogether, my taxi driver stayed with me the whole time until someone came to get me, and I could tell from how he asked, “vuoi dormire?” that he was on the verge of offering to take me home himself, when finally a German let me in.
I loathed feeling powerless and dependent, and I loathed the stress at the end of the day of never knowing if I would have a proper bed / toilet / place to take out my dry contacts that night when I was so tired. But on the other hand, we all open the door in our own different ways.
And if my way involves getting a bunch of men to do it for me…so be it.