m i l a z z o

[ 17:04 Sunday 2 September – Stazione di Milazzo, Sicilia ]

A table in the station cafe. This place looks to have been built in the seventies, somewhat out of town. It’s an impersonal echoey building. Grandiose spaces, lots of concrete and marble. The booth selling lottery tickets is closed. Beside me a display case contains Gillete razor blades, Garnier hair colourants, Imation camera films and tubes of Scotch glue. Almost everything is branded in English. A father and son face one another across the table football, both of them forced by corpulence to stand a little back from the levers as they play. Their unselfconscious grins, shouts and gestures relay the game’s progress.

I’ve been here an hour already. My desination is Castel di Tusa, some 60 miles west along the north coast of Sicilia. There isn’t a train until 19:02.

Yesterday morning I left Ginostra after a week living with Alice, Emmanuella, Maddelena, Margaritta, Nancy, Fyodor, Robin, Malcolm and Toni; none of whom I’d met before. People with strong personalities and open hearts. I was touched by their willingness to absorb me into their household. In the neighbouring house were Matteo and Nana, friends from London whom I hadn’t seen for three years. Small world.

On Wednesday night I climbed the volcano with Matteo, Nana and three friends of theirs. It’s a fairly tough ascent, a 45 degree incline with nothing but loose ash underfoot in the latter stages. It’s forbidden to go up without a guide but… well you know how it is. We set off a couple of hours before sundown, when the air was beginning to cool. As we ascended the world seemed to drop away vertically beneath us, the village a cluster of tiny white dots, the sea an intensely blue miasma shimmering without definite location or boundary. After a few hours we reached a plateau at the top, a landscape of grey-black pummice stones framed by sheer cliffs of iron-stained basalt. It is the most unearthly place I have set foot. The islanders call it the Valley of the Moon.

After a couple of minutes the earth shook and a fountain of incandescent lava rose several hundred feet into the air. Those who have witnessed an active volcano at close quarters will know what it felt like to behold this. It is probably not possible to convey it to those who have not. There’s a unique sense of connection to the deepest heart of the planet, to the cataclysmic processes which forged the continents, something appalling yet also life-affirming.

My companions and I ate our supper there and unfurled our sleeping bags. We lay there side by side on a patch of black ash watching the volcano spit its fire into the black sky every fifteen or twenty minutes. Somehow we all drifted to sleep.

At dawn we made the final ascent to the summit, swathed in swirling sulphurous mists. From here we could look down into the glowing craters. But we wanted to make our descent before the sun grew too hot. After picking our way between ravines we took the most direct route: a scree of black ash down which we half-ran, half-fell, arriving laughing, aching and black at the bottom where we stripped off and threw ourselves into the cool water. We must have descended 600 metres in a couple of minutes.

I must find a house for myself and Landon Fuller ready to start work at the beginning of October. My expectation was that this would be somewhere near Napoli or Catania. But suddenly I am drawn to the idea of spending the winter on Stromboli. Fate has conspired to present this possibility. I departed today at noon on the hydrofoil which brought me here but events are in motion and we shall see what results.

For the last two days the weather has been very strange. After weeks of unbroken sun there have been spectacular lightning storms and today it has been raining. There is change in the air.

At Castel di Tusa a man called Antonio Testi runs an hotel whose rooms have been created by artists and designers from all over the world. He is much involved in the new cultural currents brewing in Sicilia. My friends Roberta and Bobo made an introduction and yesterday evening Antonio phoned to invite me to visit. From there I may make a short visit to Palermo to see Gabriele, with whom I travelled last summer. Then I shall spend a week or so in Catania, following other threads laid before me by Roberta and Bobo.

For the second half of September I shall be in the fabulously remote Isola di Pantelleria, close to Tunisia, with Sebastian and Karen.

As I write curious children come over to my table and stare. Between paragraphs I turn the PowerBook towards them and invite them to play. I’m a little self-conscious about producing such an expensive device in a place where people are have so little material wealth.

Hopefully I shall succeed in the next few days in sending some of the despatches I have written. It already seems like an eternity since I flew from London. Oh, and my phone account from last year is up and running again: +39 328 916 1968.

I think this is the first time I’ve used capital letters in an email
since 1996. An unexpected development.

: cH

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