(A Taste of Taormina) By: F. Anthony D’Alessandro
We’d returned to paradise. My wife Adele and I selected Taormina, Sicily as our earthly paradise. Once we landed in Catania we drove directly there. After a few new scratches and nicks on my rented Volvo I attempted to guide the vehicle thru Taormina’s serpentine, hilltop streets, narrower than any alley of my urban childhood home. I felt like my Sicilian Uncle Santo must have when he tried to squeeze his carved miniature wooden ship into a narrow-mouthed whiskey bottle. Actually, a half century ago, Santo did that more smoothly than I threaded the car thru Taormina’s roads. The Sicilian owner of an American bar named Carpe Diem (appropriately named, “seize the day”) rescued me. He sprinted out of his establishment and guided me, while I sat behind my steering wheel, trapped by a street reserved for pedestrians. The man led me around a beehive of shoppers to my temporary promised land, my hotel. I’d never have woven my way to my hotel’s parking area without him. That G-d fearing gentleman even left a holy (religious) card of Mary of Fatima for me. I’m still grateful to him.
Once parked, I closed my eyes for a few seconds and inhaled that relaxing moment. The last time here, we toured Taormina’s famous theatre, walked in free of charge, and joked with the workers. Both hands of my watch pointed to twelve. Men chewed into lunches that seemed too big for my hands to wrap around. A few packed up to leave. In my best Sicilian dialect, I asked if they belonged to the same union as their New York brothers. We all shared a hearty laugh. A dust covered construction worker opened up his wine bottle, looked into my eyes, pointed it toward us and then shared his vino. We toasted the splendor of Taormina, an active and real-life travel poster, inhabited by smiling residents.
Loyal, and filled with most pleasant memories, we returned to the same hotel that hosted us last century. Before ending the first day of my return, I’d revisited the unmatched beauty of its sea, its lush landscape, relished the sounds of angelic music wafting thru the thick evening air, and also shared in the magnificence of lifelong love. In one of the stores where we shopped, the owner’s wife and partner came over to help me. The lady with a multi-lined, yet exquisite face continually pointed to her ear. At times she gestured with her hand that I move closer and speak into that ear.
Unfortunately, time stripped her of hearing and some memories as well. Both shop owners appeared born soon after the loss of the Lusitania. None of handicapping conditions caused by the calendar affected the woman’s enthusiasm and desire to assist. Her husband, her business and life partner, noticed our slight communication problem and tottered over to assist. All the while, his eyes fixed on her with a newlywed’s adoration. To him, she remained the lovely maiden he’d married during the early days of the Great Depression. She returned the tender look. It appeared such a love that one could almost touch it.
As I stepped out of the place, my wife Adele held me momentarily, wiped moisture from the shorelines of my eyes and said, “That’s what I love about you. Few people would have felt the precious reality of that moment. They would have focused on their purchase, not on that timeless love unfolding on that heartfelt human stage before us.” Yes, that Day One of my last trip to Taormina provided me a bona fide example of unconditional love.
We spent time planning tours on Day Two. From our balcony, beneath the ever smoldering Mt. Etna, we noticed an efficient swimmer seamlessly completing nearly one hundred pool laps. Adele had been a competitive swimmer in her youth. She raved about the female swimmer’s skills. To my eyes, she swam as well as a fish.
After watching that display, I declined my wife’s invitation to walk down to the pool and swim. Sit perhaps? Swim? No! I refused to jump into the pool knowing that my sloppy strokes made me appear like a Giufa (Italian fool) in that water. I rushed to my room, turned to my book of poems, and lamented the curse of old age.
By Day Three, Adele convinced me to visit the pool. I planned to go early to an uncrowded pool, so my limited swim skills would only be noticeable from distant balconies. The first thing I needed to accomplish that morning, however, was to cajole hotel authorities to connect my internet. While formally polite, I didn’t feel that they really cared about my internet service.
As usual, Adele tried to convince me of my paranoia. All of that changed when the hotel’s helper stood beside me as I explained my Internet woes, only to have him abruptly stop chatting with me, look beyond us, and welcome another guest.
Although, we’ve all had that happen to us at one time, I wondered if we’d become phantoms. People in the middle of conversation with you find someone more interesting, look over your head, walk past you, and confer with that new person. Frustrated, I never said another word to the hotel employee and suggested we go directly to the pool.
For about an hour, the pool felt like a private confessional, reserved for the two of us only. While most hotel guests still slept, I took my herky-jerky strokes for the day. An hour later, I walked to the bar to get some drinks. Adele’s sister Terri came down from her room.
Soon after, the sisters engaged in a debate about human behavior. Adele told Terri about the lack of cooperation from hotel personnel in terms of my internet problems and the rudeness tethered to it. A few minutes into their discussion an attractive younger couple moved in next to my wife. I whispered, “It’s the female Michael Phelps.” The woman whose swimming impressed us, settled nearby, along with her companion. The brawny man next to her, dried her, and scrubbed her chair vigorously. She playfully tapped him in appreciation.
The sisters continued debating as to whether bias related to class status seemed dominant in Sicily, or was it worldwide influenza. After all, people all over the globe act kinder and gentler if you are moneyed or prestigious in status. Thinking the pleasant new couple didn’t understand English, they continued with their conversation.
Surprisingly, and in flawless English, the new couple joined the discussion and contributed the most insightful ideas. Adele waved for me to return to my chair. Once I realized that my swimming requirement would be waived, I sprightly walked over, head held high.
Marco Chingari introduced himself and his wife. After a few minutes of friendly interrogation by the sisters, we learned that these obviously humble pool guests were world class opera stars. I envied Marco’s vibrant voice. Chingari’s brilliant baritone speech commanded attention. As tall as some of the professional basketball players I’d known, my first thoughts about Marco were,” If I were going to war, I want him beside me.” On a different note, I eventually realized that if I were to attend a lecture on Dante, I’d want him beside me to explain the nuances of the immortal poet’s Paradiso. As for his wife Francesca? In retrospect, I realized that I’d gotten more keen psychological insights from her in three hours, than I ever gained from any of the three hour classes taught by the dozens of doctors of psychology that I’d studied under. Mostly, I wondered if this land of fables and tales played a trick on me, by placing me face-to-face with one of its living goddesses.
This couple proved talented and knowledgeable in all areas, well beyond my limited storehouse of information. In terms of opera, as a child, my mother forced me to listen to the fabled Beniamino Gigli. After my seventh birthday, she realized the futility of that idea and sent me outdoors to play endless games of ball. That woman, born into a family of musicians, produced a son who was a musical dolt. Aside for my sister Josephine’s piano prowess, she’d have to wait one generation, for my children to arrive, before musical talents reappeared in her bloodline. My most significant musical credential centered on my sitting a table away from the great Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera’s Millennium Celebration post opera dinner. My being an arm’s length away from Luciano didn’t afford me operatic aficionado status. Why would these two superstars even want to chat with me? I wondered, but they did.
Throughout our conversation, I took notice of the subtleties of their deep affection and remarkable love. These musical artists were attentive to each other’s needs without ignoring the rest of the group. They exchanged personal, private, and affectionate looks and appeared to understand and attend to each other’s wants and needs without speaking. While with us totally, they managed to be aware of the needs of their partner. They shared a private body language of love, without pompous or pretentious ceremony.
Marco patiently explained pitch, perfect pitch, even likened it to basketball skills to make it clearer to me. We spoke of students, teaching technique, pretense, and character. He even offered advice for my granddaughter, a high school singer. Our three hours of chat seemed like 3 minutes. I also felt as if I’d known them for a lifetime. They had to leave because Francesca needed to prepare for a rehearsal in the Greek Theatre that evening.
In parting, Francesca said, “Come to our rehearsal at the theater tonight. Just tell them you’re my American friends.” The previous afternoon I’d wanted to visit the Greek Theater and relive memories of joking with the construction crew. I then saw a sign announcing an admission fee. Since we were at the end of our vacation and our supply of cash diminished, we declined ourselves the pleasure of revisiting the Greek Theatre. Thanks to Francesca’s invitation, not only did we enter the theatre, but expected to watch our new, and most refreshing friends rehearsing.
Sadly, that was the last time we saw our new friends. After our admission to the rehearsal, we were informed that the dusty air affected Francesca. She skipped the practice. We stayed and experienced the magnificence of the most advanced technological lighting, unique sounds, and heard serenades from angelic voices.
The one missing link to the perfect evening was not seeing Francesca perform. In my office, I’ve posted a Photo Hall of Fame depicting my most accomplished former students and friends. I wanted Francesca’s Turandot poster for my collection with her on it. I decided to go into one of the local stores to buy that poster. Storeowners refused to sell them. Finally, one agreed on a price and I bought it. For some reason, I immediately gave it to my sister-in-law.
Minutes later, as we continued our stroll back to our hotel, I paused and looked at the necklace of lights adorning tiny towns dotting the countryside below. I thought about some of the great writers who’d lived in Taormina. Truman Capote, D.H. Laurence, and the great Johann Goethe called it home at one time or another. I recalled Goethe’s words about Italy and Sicily. He’d said, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for in Sicily lies the key to everything.” A few steps later, I tripped off a curb. My adrenalin and enthusiasm prevented any serious damage.
Nearing our sleeping quarters, that magical music continued to resound in my mind. Terri and her husband Gerry planned for us to toast our last evening in Taormina with a very expensive bottle of Sicilian wine. I asked if they’d sell it to me instead. I wanted to send it to our new opera friends as a parting gift. Terri and Gerry refused my money, but loved the idea. I wrapped the clumsy wine bottle as best I could, walked to the desk, and asked the clerk to send the wine to Francesca and Marco’s room. His eyebrows rose and pointed skyward, he said, “The opera stars are your friends?”
“Yes, I said, “We shared a fabulous day at the pool.”
I’d established status immediately. Amazingly, the forgetful man recalled my name.”Professore D’Alessandro, it is a lovely gift, but, if you don’t mind, we cannot send it like this. The hotel will rewrap it and sent it to them.”
I thanked him, pleased that he finally recalled my name.
Because of my many successful former students, and a past position writing for a small newspaper, I have been in contact with some of the world’s most famous folks. They’d prospered in divergent professions. What I found unique to this couple was their dignity, unpretentiousness, visibly limitless love for each other, for others, and sincere friendship. The opera stars influenced me to consider Thomas Merton’s words. He said,” The beginning of love is to let those we love to be themselves, and not twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise, we only love the reflection of ourselves.” I felt blessed that this this wondrous couple made a most magnificent cameo appearance in our lives. I am so pleased to note that as busy as they are, they still find time to correspond across the alto mare.
Taormina itself presented me with a tale of two loves, loves straddling generations, and centuries. The more seasoned store owner couple continued to celebrate their flourishing winter romance. The opera stars celebrated a spontaneous, blossoming, and thriving love with their early summer romance.
I realized that Taormina offered much more than postcard perfect scenery. If one examined the locale more closely, love and romance thrived there, comfortably above the clouds and beneath Etna’s wispy wheezes.