What memories the word 'Sicilia' still conjures up in my mind. The plane descending upon Catania Airport, our childish insecurities reaching new altitudes. I remember my mind was awash with fear, expectation and that innocent sense of wonder we all hope will never fade.
The warmth of the Sicilian air paled in comparison to the warmth in their eyes. Mario, Grazia and Christina, smiling, bursting with that Italian energy and vigour. Three strangers, yet stunningly familiar. For the next week, our new friends, and our new famiglia! I soon departed the familiarity of my schoolmates' company into the open arms of the Finocchiaro's. A culture shock, a different way of life, this was Sicilia, through the eyes of a child.
The I.T.C Jacci in Messina was my new school. The corridors were full of chaos, the kids ambling around without a care in the world. There were no signs of exam pressure or boredom; it was refreshing. The classroom walls were covered in colour and various inscriptions. The first thing they wanted us to do was to carve our names into the wall. The teachers seemed more relaxed, more willing to actually entertain their students whilst learning. We entered the theatre hall, sitting alongside all the foreign students, whether French, German or even Norwegian. All the Italian students put on a production of Disney songs, all in English, especially for us. Wow, these kids actually had talent! After the event, everyone introduced themselves, and before I knew it I had 100 new friends. I remember Francesca, a complete lunatic with the nicest hair I think I have ever seen. I remember the clumsy Umberto, who they said looked exactly like me. We all toured the Centro di Messina, crossing the Piazza and bought ice creams from the Gellateria. An ice cream in one hand, a vibrant city all around, new friends, a kid couldn't ask for much more. Well, except for tickets to the Sicilian Derby. Oh yeah, I got those as well!
Over time memories grow hazy; yet others remain embedded in our hearts forever. We neared the Messina FC stadium, the pride of a city. The atmosphere was nothing less than electric. I could almost taste the passions and desires that engulfed me. Messina FC v Palermo FC, the derby, an inferno of history and rivalry that resembled the volcanicity of Mt. Etna. We took our seats, the sound was like nothing I've ever experienced. My eyes stung with the colours of the terraces, blinded by the heat of the Smokey fire crackers. I stood side by side with Christina's father, separated by the language barrier but united by the power of The Beautiful Game. For those brief seconds we understood each other. The giallo e rosso warriors battled against the opposition. Those familiar defensive strategies of Italia Calcio, complemented by brief moments of skill, technique and genius. The final whistle... 2:0... we won!
For those 90 minutes, the spectators abandoned their languid, tranquil pace of life, adopting the mayhem of the occasion. Messina FC had won the game, it had also won itself a lifelong fan.
Another fiery memory. We ascended the mountainside, the rusty truck weaving around the icy roads whilst driving through the clouds. Yes, I was petrified, yet awe-struck by the sights outside the window. Houses, people living alongside the volcano, going about their daily routines. It amazed me to witness the possibility of man and nature cohabiting in such a way. I wished I lived there! Higher, and a little bit higher, we stopped off for the traditional snowball fight, and there was me getting shouted at for throwing a ball of ice instead of snow!
Eventually we reached the highest point. We had not scaled Kilimanjaro, but it felt like it. I strolled around the souvenir shop and settled down to a steaming cup of Cappuccino, just how it should be made. The night crept up on us, the flavours of the coffee still tingling around my mouth. The truck made its descent home and our journey had come to an end... or had it? I turned my head to the image of Etna erupting with ferocity. The burning oranges, reds, purples, yellows mesmorised us for those few minutes. We couldn't speak. The lava reflected off the snowy hillside and flowed through the crevices of the pitch black rocks. Etna was bidding us farewell, and I felt privileged to be in her presence.
The Aeolian Archipelago, or 'The Islands of wind', were scattered across the sea. We got off the ferry and entered the mythical sight of the King of Winds. The island of Vulcano seemed like our own hidden jewel. Wonderfully unique, it was the birthplace of sights and smells I never realised existed. We walked and played along the beaches, the black particles of sand clinging to our skin. In the distance were the baths, teeming with acua calde, and emitting a strong odour of sulphur into the air. We bathed in the muddy waters one moment and washed ourselves off in the cool seas the next. The island contained its prize possession, Vulcano. The name itself is where we derive our modern day term "Volcano". Within this mighty Volcano lived Vulcano, the God of war, its eruptions the side effects of his work, creating the weapons of the gods. We explored the craters, carefully treading through the golden rock particles and towering above the visible layer of sulphur that immersed our feet at ground level. As a child, these visual spectacles seemed almost alien. Natural wonders that were a world away from the bustling city centre. The islands of wind not only amazed us, they educated us.
In those few days, I grew up. I could now see first-hand the power of sport, art and nature upon relationships. No longer were these people strangers, they were close and personal friends, friends that I keep in contact with to this very day. The school, my home, the sights, the sounds, and most importantly the Sicilians themselves. In my opinion, to travel is a hobby; to live in the heart of Sicilian life is an honour.
See also: Sicily — History Encapsulated by John Gregan.
See also: Sicilian Vespers by Nicky Gardner.