It was early morning as the light purr of the small outboard motor bounced off the ancient fortress walls. Seconds later a blue wooden dingy appeared around the eastern point of Syracusa, a coastal town in southern Sicily. The fisherman piloting the craft slowly steered it into the harbor, slicing through the light chop. He was heading for the fishing docks. After a long night of casting his net along the rocky coast, I imagined he was longing for a hot shower and some sleep. A women was standing at the dock, ready to catch the painter. I’d kept pace with the determined fisherman, paralleling his path through the water as I walked along the stone quay. I was passing the fishing dock just as he killed the engine and drifted the last several meters. Standing up, he tossed the line to the women. As she was securing it to the concrete piling I noticed the wedding ring on her finger, it was his wife. The look on her face told an ageless story. She was relieved to see him return, once again, safely from the sea. They both moved efficiently, like a choreographed dance that disguised their long held emotions. He balanced himself in the center of the small craft as it rocked back and forth in the waves. Bending and lifting, he tossed baskets of fish to the outstretched arms of his wife. Her toes hung off the weather beaten edge of the concrete dock as she took hold and swung the baskets ashore. Their well practiced dance with the sea, the boat and the shore contrasted starkly with their expressions. Relief, to be back home, to be together, to have another successful catch. I didn’t understand a single Italian word they were saying but I understood it all. They smiled, talking gently…about the catch, perhaps the weather, maybe the upcoming day. It didn’t matter. The same words had been spoken a million times before. The couple was simply happy to be safe and together.
Many great thinkers feel there are only two emotions; love and fear. Every other human characteristic is simply a reaction to one or the other. Anger, desire, hate, compassion, greed, empathy, competition, jealousy…they’re all responses to either fear or love. How we react to them is how we live. The fisherman and his wife live a simple life, balanced between the two. Taking a small craft out into the sea, night after night, is a risky endeavor. Being the wife of a fisherman is a risky endeavor as well. Why do they do it? Do they have to? Do they want to? I wondered if this was the same reason why Elaine and I are here? To experience that balance between fear and love?
The cafe-con-latte I was carrying had gotten cold but I didn’t care. This was truly an enchanting world to be exploring. I continued to drink the strong coffee as I headed back to our small apartment on the bay. I walked through the stone archway and into the bedroom, Elaine was still asleep. She was still recovering from the changes in time zone, the uncomfortable flight and the long hours with little sleep. We’d found this little apartment late last night. After landing at Sigonella NAS yesterday, we’d rented an old, battered Fiat from a garage just outside the front gate. We then drove down here based on a few words we’d overheard from a fellow at the terminal. “Syracusa is absolutely beautiful, you’ve got to go visit it! It’s the best place in Sicily.” We booked the apartment on Air BnB and drove south.
The old part of Syracusa is on a small island. It was dark by the time we drove across the bridge and parked the little diesel-powered Fiat in a municipal parking lot. We then headed down the dark, narrow streets laden with backpacks and a week’s worth of groceries. We walked and searched and walked and searched some more. We couldn’t find the apartment. We stopped to rest along the quay, leaning our heavy packs and groceries against the iron railing. It was a full moon and the surf glowed as it crashed against the rocks at the base of the wall. There was a small, dimly lit, cafe across the walkway and there, a middle-aged couple sat at an outdoor table and watched us. The man then stood up and approached. In broken English he asked, “Can I help you find something?” I guess it was pretty obvious we were exhausted and lost. We didn’t know what to tell him. We had the name of our host, Allison, and a GPS location on our iPhone but there was no apartment in sight. We struggled in English, Spanish and broken Italian to explain our dilemma while the man’s wife walked over to join us. We were all confused on which way to go. I opened up my iPhone and went to the advertisement for the apartment. It included a picture of Allison. “Ohhhh, Allison!” the wife said. “Your GPS is wrong, just walk straight down this street to the other side of the fortress and when you get to the bay take a left. Look for the apartment with all the plants outside, you can’t miss it.”
We followed her directions. We actually did miss it the first time around. Elaine had a melt down a few minutes later. She blew her top and said angrily, “I’m not walking another step!! This is useless, not an inch further.” I’ve known her long enough; it’s not anger, it’s fear. She’s starting to get worried and I know what’s swimming around in her head; an irrational fear that we’ll be stuck sleeping in a dark alley in the middle of a “Costa Notre” stronghold. I have a bit more stamina when it come to these situations. We’d passed several 5-star hotels while wandering through the streets and alleyways and the only discomfort we’d be feeling would ultimately be coming from my wallet. I’ve asked myself this question so many times before but it keeps coming back, “Why do I do this to myself?!?!” We’re standing in a dark and deserted alleyway in the middle of an ancient city that I’d never even f$%&ing heard about until a few hours ago. I have 45 pounds on my back and I’m carrying about another 30 pounds in two huge grocery bags that are about to tear my arms off. Elaine’s having a meltdown and I surely can’t blame her one bit.
A dark-haired, dark-skinned, voluptuous looking Italian women appeared at the end of the alleyway. She was dressed in an evening gown. She was displaying enough cleavage to turn the heads of every adult male that passed her. I wasn’t sure what to expect as she approached us. She asked, “Mr. Foster?” I nod with a look of shock. “Elaine! Joe! I’ve been looking all over for you. Where have you been? You’re late!” It was our host for the night, Allison.
Allison lead us a short distance to her rental apartment, unlocked the huge iron gate and ushered us in. We’d probably walked a couple kilometers all together and combined with the long flight we were ready to collapse. We dropped out bags on the floor. Allison showed us around and then invited us to her place to share a bottle (or three) of wine with some friends. Elaine declined, saying that she wanted to stay and unpack the groceries and luggage. I looked towards Elaine with uplifted eyebrows. A secret message, “are you okay here by yourself?” She nodded with a smile. I accepted the invitation and walked the several doors back to Allison’s apartment. Her guests were sitting on the patio overlooking the bay. She quickly introduced me to a British women and two Australian women, all in their 20’s, and an Italian couple about my age. The wine, actually Champagne, started flowing as well as the conversations. English from one direction, Italian from another. Food was soon being passed around as well as a lit joint that I politely declined. In the middle of all this, Allison received a phone call and started talking loudly in French to overcome the din of conversations. I couldn’t even understand half of the British and Australian English being spoken but it didn’t matter, everyone laughed, gestured, pointed and poured. I walked back into our small apartment an hour and a half later, well fed and with a slight buzz from the excellent champagne. Elaine was sound asleep. The overflowing grocery bags were still on the floor by the refrigerator where we’d first placed them. The backpacks were still on the floor by the bed. I couldn’t help but smile as I unpacked the food and packed it into the small fridge. Afterward, I crawled into bed next to Elaine and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.