Christmas that year began in Augsburg. I had never had the experience of a real old-fashioned German Christmas before. Mike, the bike rider; Bob, the guitar player; a couple of other American servicemen from the local Army base; and I, had been invited by our dear local friends to celebrate the holiday with them. As usual, I was the translator.
“We cannot go in yet,” said Gert, our host. “They are lighting the tree.” Well, I thought, what's the big deal about that? Then, when we were finally all invited in to actually view the tree, I understood. The tree, a beautiful Noble Fir, was indeed lit – with real candles!
After we all went Ooh and Ahh, and Bob played an appropriate Christmas tune on the guitar, they blew out the candles. I was relieved. As traditional and beautiful as it was, we were all on edge about fire. As the evening went on, and we talked about our various experiences of Christmas here and there, I asked Gert about the fire danger. Whereupon he drew my attention behind the couch. A fire extinguisher lay in wait. Leave it to the Germans to be both sentimental and practical!
The following day I flew to Rome. I had learned that December 26th is a good day to travel. Everybody coming and going for the holidays is already there, so it is easy to book a cheap flight. I did. Alfredo (Al), an American who grew up in Rome and Tony – now a Sicilian living in the north of Italy – met me at the airport, and we scurried to catch our flight to Catania in Sicily.
We were going to a conference in the center of the island. It is a town called Caltanisetta. In Catania, the biggest town on the east coast of Sicily, we stayed with a rather wealthy family. It was posh, and I still remember Tony musing: “How in the world can they afford a place like this?” Mafia was implied, but we all just kept our mouths shut – a trait in Sicily that is a wise one.
The following morning, I ventured out onto the beautifully tiled veranda. The maid was sweeping. “What is all that black stuff?” I asked unknowingly. “From the volcano,” she replied politely. Since we had arrived at night, I had not noticed. But in the harsh light of morning, there – towering above us – was Europe's most active volcano, Etna, rumbling and gurgling not a stone's throw away. A shiver went up my spine.
The rich Sicilians who had hosted us so ceremoniously also lent us a car. It was a Fiat 500, referred to fondly as a “Cinquecento.” Smaller than it's German counterpart, the VW Beetle, it is amazingly adept at negotiating tiny medieval Italian streets.
So, later, we set off diagonally across Sicily. It started to rain. Then it rained some more. And more. It was really serious by the time the 500 started to cough and sputter. We limped into the town of Enna. Appropriately enough, Enna is colloquial Sicilian for belly button. And this small town was indeed in the geographic center of the island. It was cold, dark, and wet that night.
Of course, we were “prayed-up.” That means that we had all prayed to God to bless our trip and care for us on the road. Nothing could have proved this more than that hideous neon light shining in the dark rain-soaked streets of Enna. Auto Riparazione. And it was open!
The bilious neon light was harsh enough, but the nude female calendars – years old – were fading in the process. It did not inspire confidence. But quietly, Al reached over and said sotto voce, “Don't talk English.” Like I didn't know that?
But then, Tony quietly stuck his head into the opposite window and said (in a whisper): Anche Italiano … non parlare! (and don't talk Italian either).
He dealt with the whole situation in Sicilian, and we were on our way in less than an hour.