This week, after almost two months abroad, I’ve returned to my official place of residence in Portland, Oregon. But I’m having trouble calling it home. I wonder if maybe I was home and now, I’m here. I wonder if I even know what home is.
The last couple of days I’ve been exhausted. Reacclimating. A plummet from ninety-degree Sicilian days to the sixties of the Pacific Northwest autumn. Jet lag. Heart lag. Culture lag. Asleep in the afternoon. Asleep at nine p.m. Up at six a.m., wandering through our dark apartment, ravenous and eating the Thai food Mike got us for dinner the night before. I’m not an early riser, but right now I am. I’ve been dreaming while I sleep and while I’m awake.
I’m dreaming of espresso as it was meant to be—rich, strong, smooth. Of buongiorno’s and buona sera’s graciously exchanged. Of fresh sheep ricotta, sliced tomatoes and prosciutto crudo, of warm cornetti filled with marmalata. Of homemade vino rosso, Aperol spritzes and tiny glasses of amaro. Of cannoli and peaches and figs and biscotti. Of sea salt coating my skin and thickening my hair. Of faces so familiar because they look like mine, and welcomes so warm they will heat me through winter.
I’m dreaming of a way of moving through the world unrushed and unruffled. I came to learn the word “Tranquille” because it was said to me so often when my American was showing, a torn ruffle of magenta slip hanging just below my skirt. I’d hustle to get out of the way, to finish a bite of something, to clean up, to pick up a thing I’d dropped, to reach a destination. “Tranquille.” Be at peace, be calm, signora. Don’t worry, don’t rush, don’t fuss. Relax. There’s a different way to get from here to there.
And maybe there to here. One home to the other.
I spent the last month in Sicilia, deeply immersed in the culture of Sud Italia, from which I come. My Italian roots are technically Calabrese, both of my paternal grandparents born in Reggio Calabria, the sturdy and weather worn bottom of the boot. But Sicilia and Calabria are both southern Italy, resonant places, both having endured incredible oppression and poverty. My grandparents were two of the four million Italians who immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1914. The majority of those four million were from long-suffering Sud Italia.
I knew in my head that I was going to Sicilia to understand where I come from, to do ancestral healing work, but the rest of me really had no idea what that would mean.
For the first three weeks, I stayed with my friend and soul sister Marybeth. I thought I’d have meandering days, plenty of time to write and reflect, but Sicilia had other plans for me. On the first night, a creature flew into our apartment, scaring the shit out of us and creating a comedy of slammed doors, shrieks, and tiptoeing with flashlights and pounding hearts. We thought it was a bat, but it turned out to be one of the many starlings nesting along the roof of our building. Although the bird found her way out, something else wild had swooped in and wasn’t going anywhere.
In Sicilia, my time was not mine. It belonged to the cinematic lightning and thunder storms over the Madonie Mountains where we stayed. To the oodles of people we met that instantly scooped us up and made us family. To every single excursion or interaction that always ended up being at least twice as long as expected. To the curvy mountain roads and the cows meandering across them. To the voice of my grandmother speaking to me through the pulsing of my blood.
Almost as soon as I arrived, I felt both the weight of ancestral pain—the separation from home, the ache of poverty and abuses of power—and the immensity of joy and community and nourishment from which I come. I felt permeable. I felt everything.
From the start, Sicilia pulled me in for a kiss on both cheeks and held me in an unrelenting embrace as long as I was there. Tranquille, Jennifer. You might as well relax into it.
For the final week of the month, a group of other Italian-American women joined us for the pilgrimage, Radici Siciliane, which Marybeth had lovingly organized. I was there as both participant and support for MB.
The Sicilian embrace only tightened. Our days and nights were packed with food and dancing, churches and temples, drinking and walking, and did I mention food? Just when you think lunch is over, it’s only half way through. Hearing stories of our ancestors around a smoldering fire, learning to speak Italian and Sicilian, and weeping openly. I cried at least two or three times a day. Sometimes remembering my dad, gone now thirty-one years. Sometimes thinking of the grandparents I never met. The joy of connection I missed. And sometimes, the tears came as I was flooded with the present—moved by the beauty of a passion flower, the familiarity of a gesture, the kindness of a stranger, the way a sundried tomato snapped my tongue to attention.
Once our group exchanged teary goodbyes, my last two days in Sicily were mostly alone. I stayed in Catania, a city throbbing with life and coated in grit. After the rest of my trip, I’m not sure why, but I thought I’d have a couple of days to rest and regroup. To catch up on reflection and processing of all I’d been experiencing. You can probably guess how that went, but I’ll tell you anyway.
The first night, a street arts festival blared music and revelry into my room until two in the morning. So loud I was sure the drum set was at the foot of my bed. I let the following day have me. Wandering delirious into Santa Agata’s cathedral and buying a wooden bracelet, a ring of pictures of “tutti santi,” the woman at the counter said. Indulging in one last granita—limone and gelsi—and brioche in the Piazza Universita, while a street musician sang “Creep.” Of course, I cried. Later, thinking I was ordering a light dinner and getting three times as much cheese and salad and gnocchi as I expected.
That second night, I slept fitfully, nervous about waking up to my 4:30 a.m. alarm to get a ride to the airport. A mosquito whined at my head and bit at my hands until 2:30, when I turned on the light. I found her perched on my headboard and said, “This ends now.” The slap of my hand released an explosion of my blood, and I went into the bathroom to wash it off. Of course my last night in Sicily had me holding my blood.
On my ride to the airport, I saw people casually sitting at a table outside a bar, drinking bottled beers like it was five o’clock somewhere. Which, of course, it was.
Now I’m back in Portland, walking through my neighborhood and noticing that so many people don’t greet each other and seem so sad, so guarded. Wondering what the hell is this crappy coffee I’m drinking? How can I feel so lonely and disoriented when I’m supposed to be home? What can I do to make this home? Do I need to move?
I desperately want to figure it out. To fix it. To do something. I fight with my partner. I struggle to stay awake. I push myself to clean up messes I didn’t get to before I left. It doesn’t work. My exhaustion deepens, pushes me horizontal and covers me with a heavy wool blanket.
Tranquille, signora, someone says. Or someone said. Or maybe I’m saying to myself right now. In a voice that may be mine. In a voice that sounds like home.