A delicate barrier, indeed. A barrier of words and of language.
In 2006 I was a student traveler in a travel writing and photojournalism adventure to Sicily. I was fresh and green to the Italian language.
I have a little story about my time in Sicily, and how a foreign traveler’s fear of practicing a foreign language can be overcome–often unexpectedly.
The gears turn.
“Um…um…sì, sono cattolica.”
Yes, I am Catholic. Even the hesitance in the answer fits in with my mindset. I never thought I’d be considering my religion this directly, even on a trip to Italy, a very Catholic country.
The elderly woman gestures to me with a glossy image of what I guess must be the annunciation of Jesus. She smiles and keeps holding the picture out, letting it hover above my hands. Does she want me to take it, or just look at it? I can feel the back of my neck sweating, even in the cool dimness just inside the front door of the house. I don’t want to insult her, but I don’t want to take the Jesus picture if she doesn’t want me to have it. I smile and nod politely, take the picture with one hand, and nod at it. Her hands don’t fully let go of it, so I let go of it myself and smile at her expectantly. She looks a bit disappointed and sticks the picture back into the corner of a large portrait frame. I can almost read the thought bubble, “ungrateful American”…but maybe it’s just my fearful imagination?
I think it is. In an instant she’s cheerful and pointing to her granddaughter, who apparently lives in Taormina. At this point I figure it would be good to introduce ourselves, so I tell her that my name is Taormina. No, not my last name. I think the elderly woman must now think I’m crazy, or that I’m simply making an error in translation. How can I be a town? I look over at my travel buddy, a young student like myself, witness to my botched encounter with a native of the hilltop town of Forza D’Agrò. This is the town in which much of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy was filmed.
I think we’re both just as bewildered. The woman nevertheless asks us if we would like to hear some Sicilian dialect.
God, would I ever.
But my travel friend and I are forced to leave, to catch the only bus out of town. I try to explain this as quickly and as politely as I can to the woman, who seems to understand. We pull an antithesis of the Italian goodbye as we sit down to listen to some good old Sicilian lingo and then stand up an instant later to rush out the door. Sorry, really very sorry, but…autobus. We must go. I point to my watch desperately, wishing I had more time to thank this woman who has invited two strange Americans into her house and (maybe) tried to give one an image of Jesus. She remains equally cheerful as we say our goodbyes and rush off.
It’s not every day you encounter such genuine friendliness and goodwill. A true welcoming of strangers into your home.
Things like this truly transcend the language barrier, and are a small part of why Sicily is so mesmerizing and inviting.