|An Island Home
The first time I walked through Cefalu, I knew I found my place. It was perfect, a warren of alleys to discover, the blue green Tyrrhenian Sea to walk along, La Rocca, the Rock that dominates the town and prevents it from spreading, tons of shops and restaurants to choose from. My apartment was on the top floor, of course, and had a long L-shaped balcony from which I could see the Tyrrhenian to the left, a block away, and on the right, the old town, with La Rocca looming behind it. From the tiny dining room table, which became my work space, I could gaze out at the town and the Rock, watching as the light changed throughout the day. I had a galley kitchen with a washing machine in it, and a very large bedroom with a horrible bed. I could feel each individual spring, but I didn’t care, I was home. I unpacked my suitcase and after the first night there, asked the landlord if I could stay until April 6th, when I had to start working my way north. I didn’t want to explore the rest of Sicily, I just wanted to work on the paper, relax and spend time getting to know Cefalu. I parked Blacky outside the front door of the building and let him rest the entire time.
I have had incredible luck with the weather this year, it seems that everywhere I went, I just missed the rain, or the rain came after I left. It caught up with me in Cefalu, which was perfect since it forced me to stay inside and work. For many days, I watched the stormy sea and sky rolling by outside and felt snug and safe in my nest. On the first afternoon, I wanted some tea to warm up with. I tried to light my gas stove but nothing was happening, it wasn’t automatic and the lighter by the stove was empty.
The next morning, I walked to the grocery store and bought a new lighter along with my other groceries. When I got back, I still couldn’t light the stove. I had an unfortunate stove lighting incident at my brother Jim’s apartment in NYC when I was a teenager, it took months for my eyelashes, eyebrows and bangs to grow back, so I wasn’t messing around with this. I used my Translator App and practiced saying, “Buon Giorni, il mio nome e Brooke, io vivo al piano di sopra. Mi potete aiutare accendo la mia stufa?” Good morning, my name is Brooke, I’m staying upstairs. Can you help me light my stove?
I practiced over and over, but took my phone with me just in case I forgot the speech. I went downstairs, knocked on the first door that had noises coming from inside and a teenage boy answered. I asked if he spoke English and he said no, so I launched into my speech. I only got the first sentence out, I couldn’t remember how to pronounce any of the words in the second sentence, so I just stuck my phone in the poor kids face and pointed at the Italian translation. He looked at me like I was a big ball of batshit crazy mixed with stupida Americana, then said “Mio papa non e a casa,” My Dad’s not home. I think he told me he would send his Dad upstairs when he got home, which is what happened about an hour later.
I heard a knock and a short, frazzled looking, bushy haired guy said, “Ciao, is problem here?” I took him to the stove and showed him how nothing was happening. He opened the cabinet underneath and turned on a big tank of propane, then lit the stove for me. It took him less than 20 seconds. He gave me the same look his son had earlier, shook his head and said “Arrivederci” as he walked out the door. I’m pretty sure I heard a mumbled, “Mamma Mia” in there too. Yep, Americana idiota, right here.
On my first day, I immediately set about finding my favorite restaurants. There were a couple very close by, but my favorite was the farthest away, up the hill going out of town. I went there whenever it wasn’t raining. There were tables outside, on the edge of the cliff, the sea below me on the right, with a view back towards town. The restaurant only had one waiter, Mimo (Mee-moe, short for Massimo, a very popular name in Italy), he spoke English and spent time visiting with me right from the start. Every time he saw me walking up the hill, he would wave and say, “Buongiorno Principessa!” The food could have been horrible and I would have gone back for a greeting like that, but it was excellent food, good prices and the view could not be beat.
A few days later, after shivering in the apartment, wearing my thickest sweater and a scarf while I worked, my hands became too cold to type, so I finally caved and decided to turn on the heater. It was just like the one in Dubrovnik, an independent unit stuck up high on the wall, with a remote control. I turned it on but nothing happened. I tried various buttons that seemed to make sense for heat, like a snowflake symbol, but nothing was happening. I finally emailed Massimo, the landlord and asked him to tell me how to use it. He emailed back and said he would be right there. He lived in Palermo, a forty minute drive away.
“No, Massimo, just explain it, I’m sure I can get it,” I emailed back to him immediately, but he didn’t reply and an hour later he was knocking at the door.
“It’s OK,” he said, as I apologized profusely for making him come all the way to the apartment. He picked up the remote, hit the “ON” button, then told me I had to wait five minutes for it to start working, which we did, and the warm air started pouring out.
“I really think I could have understood that if you had emailed it to me Massimo.”
Maybe he had talked to the guy downstairs and figured I couldn’t handle those complex instructions.
I spent nearly three weeks in my little nest, walking up to the top of the Rock one day, exploring the rest of the town on others. I took a different route nearly every day. One day, I was walking home from the grocery store which was about a mile away. I decided to come home by the beach and walked on the sand near the waves. Within thirty seconds, a tall, heavyset gentlemen appeared at my side.
“Buona sera signora,” he cheerfully said to me. “Where are you from?”
I told him I was from America.
“Oh, I love America,” and he chatted with me for a while then asked me if I’d like to get some coffee with him.
“No, thank you though.”
“Maybe for a drink later?”
“No, I’m sorry, I need to work, I really can’t, but thank you for asking.”
He wouldn’t let it go, so I finally said I had gelato in my grocery bag and that I had to get back to my apartment to put it in the freezer.
“You live here?” he said with much interest.
“Si, si, but I have to go. Ciao,” and I double timed it down the beach. When I got to the corner of my street, I surreptitiously looked over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t following me, I definitely didn’t want him to know where I lived. Italian men adore flirting, but they’re in it for the capture, not for the keep. They love women, particularly the older men, the younger ones are a bit too stuck on themselves, but the older ones love to play the game.
About a week after I arrived, I got an email from Rae. She was leaving Gardini Naxos and was stopping in Cefalu for the weekend and wanted to get together. She was staying at a hotel down on the beach and we met at a little park near my apartment on the day she arrived. We had lunch together and walked all over town, then had dinner together too. Men were slowing down and honking at her, and one man on a Vespa followed her to our rendezvous at the park.
“Madonna,” they would say to her, as they hung out the windows of their cars.
I am not making this up, I saw it with my own eyes. No one has ever followed me on a Vespa….unless they were trying to pass me and I was in their way.
We had a great time catching up but she was spending the rest of the weekend with a friend who lived here. She had met him while she was in language school here several years ago and they had stayed in touch. I did see her again for a coffee on Monday morning before she left on the train for Palermo. I hope to see her again at some point during her travels or mine in the years ahead.
During my quiet resting nest time, I thought a lot about the beginning of my journey. It’s nearing the end of my year, less than two months left and I’m looking at where I was now compared to where I began. When I first started this adventure, it felt like the whole world was open for me, like anything was possible. A couple of months after Michael died, I had a ridiculous fantasy that, now that I was available and on the market, someone famous would find me and take me away into a whole new world. I had either Sting or George Clooney in mind, although I really didn’t want to be the one responsible for breaking up Sting and Trudie. Turns out, this is not uncommon among widder women, this strange fantasy. I think it might be an escape from reality thing.
As the trip went on, I could see that there was no big fantasy adventure happening. There was, but not like in the movies, where I met a millionaire on the train that fell in love with me, or Jude Law came into my living room because I was staying at his sister’s house, or I met Gabriel Byrne on one of my long walks and charmed his pants off. But as the months crept by at first, then started flying by, I realized that every day I was out here was a miracle that I had created for myself, with the help of Michael’s planning for my future, of course. I wasn’t reliant on anyone, and I thought, “Why am I even thinking about finding someone successful or rich, or who loves to travel? Why not just appreciate the riches I already have in my life and do what makes me happy?” I don’t want to rely on someone else, that’s what I’m learning out here. I want to stand strong, be successful in my own right, create things and experiences for myself, THEN, if I find someone else that likes the same things I like, it’s icing on the cake but not the whole cake. It seems pretty obvious now, but it appears that, in addition to being slow to let go, I’m a pretty slow learner. I do let go of anger and resentment pretty fast though, and I’m extremely grateful for that.
While I’m on the topic of creating the life I want for myself, I feel the urge to explain that I cashed in part of my retirement money and went into debt to make this journey happen. Michael did not have life insurance, I did not inherit a huge sum of money, but our house is paid for, so I rented it and am using some of that to live on this year. I took a long time to make the decision, and talked to people I trusted before I began my planning. I felt strongly that I needed to do this now, while I was relatively young and healthy enough to enjoy it. There are many things I’ve done this year that I may or may not have the energy for in ten more years when I can retire.
What I’m trying to say is that I worked and planned to make my dream of world travel come true. I took risks and I trusted what my heart was telling me and the rewards have been greater than I could have hoped for.