The apartment in Ortigia where I am living is located on the main street of an old working-class neighbourhood. There are a number of former aristocratic residences around, most of which were built after the 1693 earthquake and the façades of many of which show traces of neglect, even though they are generally inhabitable. Elio Vittorini, the author of Conversations in Sicily, was born a few houses away and the part of the waterfront located behind the street is named after him. The eastern waterfront of Ortigia – often described as dangerous and wild – is from where one can admire the endless blues of the Ionian Sea. This is probably most beautiful sea view in a city centre that I have ever had. I walk here almost every night to look for constellations in the sky. Because Syracuse was a major centre of the Ancient Greek Civilization – and the most beautiful of them, according to Cicero –, and because the names of many celestial bodies as we know them in Europe have roots in Greek mythology, I think Syracuse is the most natural place for stargazing. When I come home from the other side of the city and the weather is windy, like today, the whole neighbourhood smells of the sea.
It is the people that live on my street, though, that fascinate me the most. Even though I see some couples, young families and groups of – mostly European – tourists walk past my house to go to the beach or do some sightseeing every morning, and I hear their steps and tired chatter at night when they head back to their B&B’s and apartments, it is the long-time inhabitants of this street that give it a shape and face. I have figured out by now that my house is located at the busiest section of the street, and because it is an old Sicilian house with thin walls, I am, even when at home with all the windows closed, part of the hustle and bustle of the city.
First, there is a lady across the street that has set up a shop in her living room. She is usually sitting and knitting at her window, around which she has hung bright-coloured woolen skirts, dresses and jackets for girls. Sometimes, especially in the afternoon, I see her pins fallen on her lap and her dozing with her mouth slightly open. The lady usually opens the shop early in the morning, then closes it around 11, probably in order to prepare lunch, and then, after, opens its again and remains seated on her chair until the news on TV, until the sun sets or, if there is a celebration taking place in the city, until around midnight. She has grey curly hair and she is often dressed in black. She has a proud posture and a coarse voice, which makes her look and sound a bit intimidating, but the way her intonation changes when she asks ‘Capito?’ reveals that she is actually a kind-hearted and generous lady. Sometimes her daughter takes her place at the shop or helps her. During the two weeks that I have lived here I have seen only two customers that have bought something from them. The last one was an Englishman named Henry who bought two dresses for 12 euros. They didn’t have any change but the lady next door who seems to do laundry every day and who happened to be hanging shirts and bed sheets on the rack in front of her window was naturally willing to help. While the shopkeeper was changing money, her daughter was trying to do some more business or just have a small talk by showing Henry their other products. ‘È bella?’, she asked proudly at every skirt that she took from a hanger, to the embarrassment of the silent Englishman. Sicilians are very expressive and they want foreigners, too, to say what they think and feel, right here and right now.
Secondly, there is an old lady with glasses that lives in a house next to the shop. She is always standing at her door, her back towards the street, watching her cat play on the floor. A week ago a group of Spanish women stopped at the cat and began to pet it, but when they left disappointment was written in all of their faces – the lady had asked them for money! After she thanked God for His mercy by making the sign of the cross three times and raising her hands towards Him. A real Caravaggian character, I thought, when I saw her theatrical gestures in the framing of the door, daylight dramatically highlighting her features while her body remained in the nearly-absolute darkness of the kitchen. The lady also has a dog named Ulisse that she and her son constantly call and command. People living on our street, especially men, greet her gallantly and ask about her morning when leaving their houses to go to work, and she patiently wishes all of them a good day or a good trip. I have seen her very angry as well. Two days ago I flinched when heard her shout compulsively almost at my window. ‘Non mi interessa! Non mi interessa! Cento anni! Cento anni!’ She was having an argument with the owner of her house, but what exactly it was about I didn’t quite get. Many women living nearby stuck their heads out of their windows or appeared on their balconies when the argument began to take higher notes, either to side with the owner or to try to calm down the lady. But she went on, furious, for two hours! I thought that she was angry to have to take orders from a woman that is so much younger than she, that perhaps she was trying to convince the others and herself that she is actually one hundred years old and deserves respect (she looks 70), or at least that her family has lived in that house or in that neighbourhood for a long time and that they had never had any problems so far.
I have witnessed other incidents as well. On my second day in Ortigia, a couple living above me had what I thought was a big quarrel, but when I heard they were shouting words such as ‘pappardelle’ and ‘fettuccine’ I figured that they were just discussing what to prepare for lunch. (The wife won, of course.) Some days later I heard a man whose voice was such that obese people often have, shout angrily ‘Vaffanculo!’ seven times in a row, quickly, as if he had a time limit and he wanted to insult his interlocutor as much as he could before his mouth is sealed. Last Wednesday around midnight I heard a man barking (!) under the window of his prospective girlfriend. Or, if they were already a couple, the incident was most probably caused by jealousy, another thing very common in Sicily…
I really like it here.