by Eric Lucas
“So, how does it feel to be in your homeland?”
My wife, Leslie, looks at me inquisitively.
We’re visiting Tindari, Sicily, where the Black Madonna of Tindari hangs in a cool-stone basilica on an olive-scrub headland overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Beside the Madonna is an equally ebony Christ hanging on a crucifix. Up the road is a theater used by Greeks and Romans; stone seats persist on a rocky hillside, 2,000 years after they were first set down.
“She is known as the ‘Black Madonna of the Orient’,” our Sicilian guide, Lita, explains about the sepia-hued sculpture in the basilica’s huge bronze altar. “That means ‘from the east.’ In this case, Byzantium. So many, many people have come through Sicily over the centuries.”
And many have left.
“I’m Sicilian,” I tell Lita. She raises her eyebrows, looks me up and down. I hope I pass inspection: oxhide skin; walnut eyes; bones like the old olive trees nearby. She nods.
“One quarter Sicilian,” I clarify. “My great-grandparents came from a village above Palermo. So, I’ve heard that if you are Sicilian, you have some African blood in you?”
Her expression is complex, but let’s say she rolls her eyes.
“Better to say almost every blood there is. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Jews, Greeks, Saracens, Normans, Arabs, Spanish, crusaders, French, English—all have come to Sicily. Look at my eyes; people say they are Arabian. It’s farther from here to Jerusalem,” she points east, “than to London. People don’t realize how big the Mediterranean is.”
After sailing the world’s best-known sea on a marvelous Holland America cruise from Barcelona to Venice, I can testify to the size of it. And to the sunshine, warmth, cultural color, ethnic panorama. We’ve seen Antonio Gaudi’s astounding Sagrada Familia cathedral; gawked at Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel; watched tourists sitting on the ruins of the greatest of all empires, eating popcorn; waded through crowds in St. Mark’s Square.
But Sicily is, in one sense, the key stop. I am the first of my family in my generation to reach this rock-and-dust crossroads of civilization. It’s too far to get to the tiny mountain village that my great-grandparents left in 1901, but I vividly recall what my grandmother said, shortly before she died, when I mentioned that someday I’d like to visit. “What for? It’s a dirty, crummy place.”
Actually, it’s not. Every flat place on the island has something planted on it—eggplants by the millions, kiwi and grape vines, nursery trees, beans, tomatoes, miles of orange, lemon and mandarin orchards. Sicilian pizza is as good as advertised, and there is none in the States like it, no matter what claims of authenticity you may hear. Sicilian gelato (in this case, blood orange) is excellent. There is a lot of trash by the roads, but no more than in Las Vegas; and none in the city streets. The cars are shiny and new, the highways good, the people healthy. And, on every Sicilian hillside are olive trees and more olive trees, trees so old they may have shaded Crusaders who came by on their way to eradicate the Saracens who may have been my ancestors.
Both, in fact, may have been my ancestors; not to mention all the others. And that Sicilian part is just a quarter-section of “me,” if you surrender to the ancient superstition that our blood is who we are.
As Leslie and I walk back down from Tindari Basilica, we stop in a café to sample a local delicacy, l’aroncini al pistacchio, fried rice balls stuffed with pistachio meal. Leslie has pistachio gelato. That’s when she asks how it feels to be in my “homeland.”
I consider this for one second.
“Not my homeland.”
Leslie gets the fuzzled look that appears whenever we have this discussion, which happens periodically as we journey the world. She is a firmly rooted person, born and raised in one place in the Pacific Northwest; fondly drawn to one of her ancestral homelands, Sweden, and all its ways.
I lived only six months where I was born. I came of age in New Orleans, but have no attachment there, other than to strong coffee. That’s not “home.” I did not live in one single house longer than five years until I married Leslie; she’s been in our home in Seattle 18 years; me, seven. That’s home.
I have been to 32 countries, most of Europe, all 50 states, most of Mexico and all of Western Canada. I’ve been to the world’s smallest country and its second-biggest. I speak rudimentary Spanish, love Cantonese dim sum, Mexican posole and Viennese pastries. I have sampled fried scorpions in Beijing and callaloo soup in Tobago. I have friends in Britain, Poland, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, Canada and Switzerland. I am listening to Hawaiian music as I write this, the incomparable Keali’i Recheil. I feel fortunate I was born American partly because, through dumb luck, English has become the world’s lingua franca. I’d love to have a European Union passport—the EU represents the future of humankind, if we have one. I can easily think in four currencies. I know how hot 32 degrees is around the world.
I look forward to the time that Sicily is just one among many human neighborhoods. I believe the Black Madonna will one day be just historic art. I myself will not see that day. So much of all human suffering has been caused by religion and nationhood—doctrines and “homelands.” The Black Madonna was brought to Tindari because of factional slaughter in the medieval Christian church. The Sicilian city where we docked, Messina, was destroyed by Allied forces in 1943. I was born in 1951. How many hundreds of millions have died in my own lifetime?
At a table on a Sicilian hillside, I reach out to touch my wife’s hair, the color of straw on a Baltic island. Her eyes shine blue, like Michelangelo’s sky. She smiles in the same afternoon sunlight that shines on every land in every life the world over and always has, and I say where I am from.
“My homeland is the planet we live on.”
Visit Eric Lucas at his website, www.TrailNot4Sissies.com.