ENNA, Italy — The watermelon man was armed, and he looked as though he could be dangerous.
"EH!" he shouted, stopping us dead in our tracks. There wasn't the hint of a smile on his face, there was a very large knife in his hand, and that knife was pointed menacingly our way. Our crime had been a small one, with no offense intended. My husband and I had spent the day wandering around Enna, a mountain town located high in the heart of Sicily. As in so many places on that island, human passions and long-held beliefs seemed to surge not far below even deceptive surfaces. We ate in a little restaurant said to have been one of Mussolini's favorites. Although it was the sleepy part of midday, the antipasto table was stacked as if they thought the Pope just might stroll in. We walked by modern apartment buildings festooned with garlic bulbs to guard against ancient terrors like the mal occhio (evil eye).
Then we saw a truck brimming with watermelons. No big deal, except its wares were advertised by a poster of a naked woman lying in a sea of watermelons. It made us laugh. Snap a picture, we thought. But then the watermelon man saw us.
"Eh!" he said gruffly, still holding out the knife and making it clear he didn't plan to let us just shuffle away. Why did we have to try to take the picture? What geeks. Why didn't my father, the son of Italian immigrants, let me learn Italian as a kid? Not that this Sicilian man was likely to understand my grandparents' far-northern dialect, nor they his. I mumbled what I thought might be the expression for "I'm sorry." My Irish husband looked at me as though I was nuts.
But then the watermelon man made a move. Satisfied that we weren't going anywhere, he turned the knife away from us and plunged it into one of his watermelons. With great flourish and care, he cut away and cut away. We shot each other "What is he doing?" looks. Finally, he plunged the knife into the wedge and then, holding the juicy fruit aloft like a prize and grinning broadly, gestured toward our camera. We were never in danger. The guy was just trying to help us make a better picture. Why photograph just a truck? We offered to pay for the watermelon, but he wouldn't hear of it, shaking his head at our lire and shoving watermelon wedges into our hands.
I don't think my grandmother would have appreciated my going to Sicily. Our family, after all, was from the north, the land that gave birth to the Italian kings, or so as a child I was told. Even if my grandparents came here as poor as any immigrants, we had nobility coursing through our past.
The southern Italians were something else again. And Sicily? Forget about it. It was a wild land of wild people, the poorest of the poor, the brunt of jokes and the captives of their own passions. To my \o7 nonna\f7 , now deceased, that meant chaos.
But years later, after visiting other parts of our family homeland, I remained curious about those Italians-in-the-extreme. Last summer, I finally caught an Alitalia flight bound for Sicily.
My first impression of Sicily was, well, chaos. (OK, Grandma, OK.) At the Catania airport, there were no signs at the baggage claim but the uniformed airport guard assured us we were at the right carousel. We weren't. Then getting an espresso at the airport bar was like engaging in a contact sport; there was no line, just a mob moving amoeba-like toward the register. Picking up the rental car was easy enough. But then there was the drive into Catania.
Italians drive fast, and Sicilians drive faster, but it wasn't just a matter of speed. We weren't in the city proper long before we realized we were hitting no traffic lights, no stop signs, and if there were any rules of the road, no one seemed to be following them. Later, at night, walking around the city, there seemed to be hardly any people on the streets. Particles of something soot--ash from Mt. Etna?--stung our eyes, and beyond the open shutters of apartments, people lay on beds, surrendering to the heavy heat. We ate Italian food in a Chinese restaurant, about the only place we could find open at the hour. Was this what all of Sicily would be like?
Looking back on it, Sicily is one of the most varied places I've been to. Small wonder: Since ancient times, Sicily has been held by the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, the Swabians, the French Angevins, the Spanish and, finally, the Italians, all leaving their mark. In three weeks we saw the peasant poor, the haughty rich, the graceful, the beautiful, the corrupt; sex and piety and lives seemingly lived out of another time. We got a broad sample the very next day.
On the drive north from Catania, we passed brilliantly flowering vines, old villas left to ruin, and Etna smoking in the distance. The road cut through mountains with towns perched precariously on top. We sped by Taormina, the seaside resort of the jet set, until we hit Milazzo, where we would catch a ferry for the nearby Aeolian Islands.