By Toti O’Brien
The town of Messina in the sixties was nothing special. Earthquakes had destroyed it repeatedly. The last one had occurred in 1908, when grandmother was five or six (we were never sure as she claimed to have a different birth date from the one inscribed on her papers).
She had a clear memory of the event. It took place as usual at the crack of dawn. She remembered being picked up from bed in a rush, and a wave of people pouring into the streets in their nightgowns running towards the sea. But the sea started to move towards them with a counter-wave as tall as a tower. The sea where they were seeking safety came back to devour and bury them. They got trapped between two giants.
The town perished. All its beautiful facades and palaces were destroyed and never rebuilt. The small halo of the bourgeoisie, so important for an urban centre of even modest proportions, disappeared. What remained was considered vulgar, nondescript – just the harbour and its tastes.
There are common meanings that all harbours imply. The chaos of arrivals, departures and noise. The constant flow of people of all kinds with their different languages and uniforms. The endless shifting of boats; and on the docks, trains and engines. The bars - open night and day - offering little food but plenty of liquor.
There are things you don’t see as a child, but still sense: adventure, possibility. You guess about contraband, prostitution and crime, even if you don't know what these things mean. Yet they are present in the faces, the looks, the expressions; in the way people walk or stop; in the way they stand at the bar; in the way they wait.
The port was the place where I always wanted to be. I also loved the train station, but the port had the invaluable addition of water and salty air. Coastal towns and harbours maintain such indelible appeal. The sea touching them, licking them on the flank - it’s like a rub of freedom. With the sea you can always escape. From the sea one day someone will arrive. And whoever or whatever it is, you believe it is worth waiting for.
The American market close to shore was filled with military shirts, boots, pants, shoes and backpacks. It was as if the war was still on. All the stuff was piled on tarpaulin on the floor, sometimes under an umbrella or a tent, sometimes just under the sun. In the centre of that greenish mess a small stand sold herring and other smoked fish for almost nothing (dad, in his youth, filled himself with the smell, for he couldn’t buy any).
The entire town smelled of fish. Swordfish mostly, which had been caught in the straight. There was also tuna, and mussels grown in two salty lakes by the poorest suburbs and close to the huge lighthouse that signalled the narrowest point of the channel. There the tides were at their most powerful. Whales passed by, birds gathered, the wind twirled, and the weather would suddenly and impressively change.
As well as fish the whole town smelled of capers. They grew on walls, showing their wide and exotic flowers. That smell always hits me like a fist. It doesn’t let go. Along with the smell of yeasted bread rising, it makes me feel what it means to be alive.
No wonder they say that Jesus fed bread and fish to the multitudes; it was a good idea. Then (or was it before?) he transformed water in wine. That happens here too. The red wine made from grapes grown on the volcanoes is thick and gooey like blood. It’s tasty like the salted water the plants suck up directly through crumbly lava rock. And the surrounding sea looks purple like wine.
There were times when we went to see relatives who had nice apartments. The more expensive ones had huge balconies that looked out over the strait. What a sight. On the channel the ferries crossed non-stop, joining the two shores. But that was only part of the show, for there was much more to see between land and water.
Grandpa knew the name and story of each and every boat. He taught me how to recognise them. That became one of our favourite games. He transmitted his knowledge by cataloguing, organising, ordering things by series. It was fun: he made up rhymes and melodies, riddles and songs. Yes, I knew the names of all ships, which was the oldest or largest and the companies they belonged to.
It was almost like the boats had a soul. They seemed to be people. It wasn’t surprising: they were part of a world - one encompassed by the island - which vibrated inch by inch. A world where the ugliest things appeared beautiful because they were explained. Life was handed down by grandpa with care, attention and love. That's all it takes. Everything you receive that way is impressed with the mark of wonder. It shines with a magical halo. It echoes with a ring of grace.
Still, Messina didn't have a place among Italy’s beauties. Not officially. Almost any other village, up the country or on the island itself, could offer monuments, artefacts, architecture - things to be proud of. Our harbour was not among them. Local mafia, money interests, feudalism, religion (quite an awful lot of archaic attitudes and the timeless vice of power) had ensured for things to stay as they were. That was the south, and the south did not move with the civic poise of the northern regions.
Besides a few streets in the centre which hosted nice shops and cafes, drenched with the rich smell of Arabic pastries and ice cream, the town was poor, sloppy, dirty and abandoned. There was, of course, the cathedral bell tower, with its mechanic figurines playing around when the clock rang the hour, plus some sparkle of golden mosaic, golden tiles. But they were in a small garden: not well tended, too dry.
Except for our microscopic downtown, misery poured out directly and steadily from the hills to the beaches, following the tangential lines of the riverbeds, many of them perpendicular to the shore. In winter those ravines hosted an exiguous drip of water, while in summer they were channels of stone connecting the mountains to the sea. Huts and barracks spontaneously gathered on the borders of those natural crevices. They became kinds of villages, neighbourhoods with specific flavours and names. They created the local geography. Poverty was spread thick and dusty over there, and it spread, spilling and staining the small centre town. Its odour combined with the acrid smell of the port.
I adored the town with all of its corners. Although I wasn’t born there, I belonged. I could die there for sure: birth and death are close in the harbour, like arrival and departure. Like the two shores where the ferry works the same route, back and forth. The ferry, with two sides that are both entrance or exit. Two gates which lift and descend.
Like a patient weaver, the ferry connects two worlds: the boat is a hand that pushes a shuttle and pulls a thread. We are caught in the motion.
Toti O’Brien lived in the city of Messina in Sicily during the 1960s. Her work has appeared in Synesthesia, Siren, The Harpoon Review and Litro NY among other journals and anthologies. She has contributed for a decade to various Italian magazines.
All photographs courtesy of the author, except the top image which is used under a Creative Commons license.