The phrases “what do you do?” or “where are you from?” have become controversial questions to some. I used to not understand the concern, as your job and roots kind of help define you. But lately it’s been rather insane how crucial these concepts are to certain folks.
Society’s ultra-high-speed-types can’t get twelve words into a dialogue without glaring at you and demanding to know what you do for a living and where you hang your hat. And then they immediately determine who you are based upon your brief response. Nobody has the time to deeply converse and actually get to know a fellow human anymore.
I attribute this, as always, to the smartphone. When you only have two minutes before you have to check your texts again? Then your go-to method is to quickly ask a newly met individual’s occupation and homeland and you can move on.
I’m at the point now where I deliberately don’t ask these questions anymore. I just talk with folks and try to see how things play out. I’ve found over time that even if I know a person pretty well, that I still might have no idea what their day job is or where they were born. And I’m okay with that.
Especially since for Americans the idea of “where are you from?” can get rather confusing. In Vietnam, the answer was probably, simply Da Nang. That was usually it. And most Americans will simply list their home state or city and be done with it.
But things get crazy the further back into history you go. And the reply can quickly become something like: New Hampshire, England, New Jersey, Ireland, Maryland, Sicily, and so on. So you can really struggle with identity, your past, and where you fit on this floating rock.
For instance, recently I’ve begun to contemplate what it would be like to depart the land of ultra-high-speed-types and return to the simpler roots of my great-grandparents when they lived in rural New Hampshire. In traveling there recently, it’s weird how you can hear your own history calling you.
I felt the same way visiting Sicily. A deep physical journey into your own past has an extremely powerful pull; intense, thoughtful, wonderful, but also uncomfortable. And you get home and feel the aftertaste of your ancestral lands for weeks.
The New York Times had an article yesterday on how a Sicilian town is trying to cope with the reality that nobody in Europe is interested in having children anymore. Basically, they’ll give you a house for free provided you restore it to livable standards within four years.
And I was like, if I had the cash I’d probably do that. I could have a new home and I’d return to my past. And maybe have a place in New Hampshire too, so that’d be covered. But I don’t have any cash so this isn’t going to happen. But it was a neat thought.
Then I began to really think about it. This Times article is about Gangi, a mountaintop town in the central mountains. My roots are in Palermo. But I’ve visited Erice, another mountaintop town in the west.
I went to Erice the same day I visited Segesta. Erice and Segesta are about a half-hour’s drive away and tied by the planet’s rhythms. Mount Erice is a pop-up peak in the sense that it’s basically sitting atop a coastal plain all by itself.
You get a good feel for how isolated it looks from far away. Not my photo.
As such, it’s played a key part in Sicily’s evolution as one of history’s great doormats because all the hordes valued the mountain as a fortress. Cue Benny Hill: Phoenicians, Hellenes, Syracuse, Carthage, Epirus, Carthage, Rome, Carthage, Rome, Vandals, Goths, Byzantium, Moslems, Normans, Castilian Spain, Naples, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Italy, Nazis, Italy.
The optical illusion of the mountain’s isolation is rather stark and surprising. At the summit, I figured I was about 5K feet high but it’s only 2,184 feet above sea level. It would seem this led the ancients to believe that Erice and Etna were the two tallest mountains in Sicily when Erice clearly is not.
Morning maritime cloud cover beneath Mount Erice’s summit – The clouds helped give the impression the mountain was far taller than it actually was
I was infatuated with this town in the sense that as I walked through it I wanted to live there. It’s one of those rare enchanting places where you feel yourself potentially drawn into some kind of loose fairy tale where the rules of reality no longer apply. It’s where I first heard the term The Blessed Nothing.
Fairy tale shot
So why not live there, if I had the cash? Well, first off you’d need a lot of cash. The Times article states:
“The community has gone one crucial step further, radically streamlining the intricate and often convoluted bureaucracy that accompanies buying and renovating a home in Italy.”
I think it’s probably easier to renovate a building in Kazakhstan than in Italy given the level of bureaucracy.
Plus, you’ve got those dastardly mafia guys. The Times also says:
“Building and renovation costs can be high. ‘Sicily is not for everyone,’ the website warns.”
This is a very polite way of saying that the construction business, especially in Sicily, is still hostage to the mafia.
Oh, so I’m going to roll into Erice, buy property, and build my dream history home? Am I? Let me outline how this would play out. Although this is a comical interpretation; I don’t think this would actually happen. At least I sure hope not.
1) I’d need more money than Satan to pay for all the bureaucratic hurdles, law fees, and permits. It would take forever, but if I’ve got the cash, okay.
2) I’d stay clean by hiring a non-mafia business to renovate the property.
3) A friendly bloke named Vini would share a beer with me at the bar during which time my naïve American cultural background would not allow me to take a hint.
4) Still with the non-mafia business, I one day find a bullet on my windowsill. But I figure somebody just lost their bullet and take out an ad in the local paper asking if anybody knows who owns it.
5) Taking this ill thought action as an attempt at defiance, Vini randomly inquires in the bar if “I’ve lost my fucking mind.” I blindly chuckle with my friend that indeed I have, as I’m living my Blessed Nothing dream.
6) Then I wake up one day and there’s a horse head in my bed with the word “Khartoum” chiseled into its dead neck. And I wonder how a severed horse head got all the way here from The Sudan.
7) Days later in the small kitchen I find a sheet of paper stabbed into the table with a knife stating, “Either you mean to fight us or you’re the dumbest asshole this side of the planet, but you either let us renovate or you die. – Vini.” And I have the sudden understanding that my poor bro Vini has been blackmailed by the mafia to threaten me.
8) But like the principled American that I am, I refuse to do business with criminals, and I need to help my friend. So I pay a visit to the local Carabinieri and earnestly explain to him my desire to have the law on my side. And the guy just sits there nodding at my story, shifty eyed the entire time. He promises to help me right away.
9) Then I get my throat slashed while walking drunkenly home from the bar one night. Nobody misses me.
Thus the thought occurs to me, that perhaps maybe I don’t actually want to live in Erice. And that maybe my ancestors left Sicily for a reason. Who am I to turn back the family clock? What gives me the right to completely overrule decisions they made?
They made choices that led to where my family and I are today. A future’s built on what we and our families decide to do today, tomorrow, and beyond. In somewhat offhand discussions of the original New Hampshire idea, it’s clear my family thought it was a weird idea. Which I now get.
So the past calls, but that’s it. So to travel there, or vacation there, but not more. The fulfillment of the actual dream is the culmination of all the choices our ancestors made. So history is what it is, a guide, a past, a purpose, but not a future.
Castello di Venere – A Norman structure, 13th Century, built atop the ruins of the original Venus cult temple of Hellenic times
Base of Venus Castle – These towers and the mountain itself are reasons why humanity invented the starvation tactic during siege warfare; for six or seven centuries, Erice served as a haven for the local sea level areas during the many, many Barbary raids across the Mediterranean
Castello di Pepoli – A smaller and much ruined fortification built under Moslem stewardship
Duomo Church – There used to be dozens of churches in Erice; one every block or so, small parishes, each for a set of families; for better or worse, the place of religion in our human lives is truly very much diminished from what it once was
Duomo Church Tower.
Ristorante Osteria di Venere – According to Frommer’s, “This local dive has a staff not trained in the social graces, but it serves excellent regional cooking nonetheless.” True statement; also, this guy is my hero because it was probably 11am when I took this shot
From Erice’s summit, looking north – sea level villages and the great Mediterranean Sea
Fairy tale shot