10 May 2017: The Fluorescence


Free Radicals

Lately I’ve looked out and everything seems to be fluorescent. The edge of everything, anything, looks like a standstill against radical particles that you can almost individually see. Edges glow. The island has an aura, maybe. The wall of this apartment building, of the rusted barbed wire that defines the airport perimeter, the white rocks above the sea––all of these things are obvious to my eye because the sky is kneading at their edges infinitely and so nimbly. At night you can see it too. Even shadows in the moonlight have a brighter life to them.

A few nights ago, late, six small ships parked in the port that directly face the front door of my apartment. Earlier that day, about fifty refugees from Pakistan landed at that dock by the Guardia Costiera. Together, the ships looked like a blockade. Their lights on deck were on, and they were altogether causing too much of a scene to ignore; I had never seen them there before. I figured they were carrying more arriving refugees, but too many birds were circling overhead on the hunt for food: these were instead fishing vessels. They’ve stayed there for days because the wind kicked up, and only now that it’s calming are they starting to depart. My friend said they’re likely not fisherman from Lampedusa, but from Sicily maybe, or probably beyond that elsewhere in the Mediterranean that are forced to port on their way to wherever it is they’re coming or going. 

People are constantly stopping here. It makes me question the isolation I feel until my head is reverberating. Here, it always seems like no one is on the outside looking in, that no matter how far you stretch your gaze your eyes simply will not be met. Lampedusa is about being alone, it’s the qualifying gesture of the land itself: lost, gone, drifted away. By now you know the line, “a little rock lost at sea,” even some locals have issued that phrase to me. 

Then, on the other hand, none of it’s true. In perfectly contrary terms, Lampedusa makes clear that, here, the whole world is around you. From which country did those fishing boats arrive late the other night? Along Via Roma yesterday I met groups from The Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria; a Japanese couple sat together engrossed in a gelato break; the Polish barista was working her shift at the Royal, and the Romanian lady at the bakery told me where I could find coconut oil for my skin. 

I met an American––one of only four I’ve ever encountered on the island––a man from Pittsburgh. He was stationed here with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978 when what really constituted Lampedusa was a military base. He returns every now and again to reconnect. He is dismayed at the development. Maybe he likes to come here to forget about civilization, but now that feeling can’t be found. His wife died recently, and his son, he told me, died in an accident in 2007. He braced himself against his bottle of beer to keep his tears from falling. It all happened, by accident, under the afternoon sun. He apologized for the emotions, but it was unnecessary. I understand the lure of Lampedusa as a place go to conquer solitude, to master it. When you are this far out, you’re inspired to think that if you can sit here alone with your thoughts and be at peace, anywhere else upon departing will be easy.

It’s the other contradiction, or at least the misreading of the island, for there are endless distractions here. Namely, it’s the distraction of formless time. The island is a pacemaker for its own bizarre reality. This is a location of limitless beauty and inconceivable nightmares. Somewhere in between, people actually report to work. They break for coffee. They collectively turn a street into a ghost town for three hours a day, every day, for the midday pause, only to reopen again in an unforeseen twist called aperitivo. Wine cocktails are poured and set next to a civilized spread of salty snacks and breads. I feel like I’m living in a scene of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001). All of the little phantoms lumber out of the ether to celebrate life again. This order suggests structure, but I have officially been in Lampedusa collectively for months and I still cannot perceive it in the normal course of my own day.

Locals, I believe, understand everything here tacitly. I bumped into my friend Fabio on Via Emanuele and he told me a political rally was happening soon, which is why the intersection was so clogged. But there was no announcement as far as I could see. I didn’t bother to even ask how he knew about it, he just did. I met the mayor, Guisy Nicolini, who’s seeking reelection in June, at her political rally last Saturday (there were posters around town announcing that one). She is strong in a way that makes you want to pity men. I really loved that recent McSweeney’s article that said anything men can do, I can do bleeding, and a friend told me that people in town actually questioned if she, as a woman, was “too emotional” to handle the job when she made her initial run years ago. 

Guisy delivered a rousing speech, of which I understood the broad strokes. My friend Mauro stood there prodding me to record more video with my phone and leaned in to tell me things people were saying. He said to stop him if I didn’t understand something and he’d explain it again, or that he’d just say it in English. Mauro is from Modena and is typically swaying through the streets in voluminous cotton pants that blow up like curtains when they catch the wind. His head is wrapped in another stretch of fabric, he teaches yoga, and he is definitely the town hippie. Naturally, I like him.

He coaxed me out into the water at Cala Guitgia on Saturday saying the cloud of jellyfish hugging the shore were dead, so it was alright to step in. I did step in and then I got stung, but it was just a baby so it wasn’t so bad. In a sick way I’m glad this happened, because I’ve always been afraid of it, and now that it’s happened I see that I survived and it wasn’t that big of a deal. Everyone, go get stung––it’s easy, you’ll totally make it. Mauro says that the problem is not the jellyfish but the pain you decide to feel that will prevent you from staying in the water to swim and enjoy yourself. He’s on the next level. But he also understands the rest of us here back on earth. He says Guisy is tough, and likes her because she is an advocate for the many types who create the character of the island; he likes her because she values the life of the refugee. 

There are so many coming. More than 200 arrived on Sunday. Between Friday and Saturday more than 6,000 had left Libya. Guys are transferred every day, but more are on their heels to take their place. There isn’t fear here of the outsider though. Fabio says there are almost zero cases of violence or theft from migrants after they arrive. Once, his shoes were stolen after he placed them on his front porch; but he describes even this as more of a misunderstanding than any crime. The refugee was someone he knew from the hotspot, where years ago he used to work. He knew him by name, stopped him, and the man immediately handed the shoes over, explaining that he thought they were discarded. Whether or not that is true, the problem was assuaged. Fabio could not name another incident.

Mauro likes living on the island for the same kind of uncorrupted encounters he can maintain. Here, there has been no exposure to city life, to the full breadth of Italian society and culture. There is nowhere to run, even if you did do something horrendous enough to require escape. There is only a patch of limestone sand, crystal coves, and a small main street that mystically breathes life at varying moments of the day. And there is the trauma. When migrants step off the boat and onto Via Roma the next day, they are too blinded by the contrast of the world here and that of Libya and the open sea to do anything else but stare at the surreal fluorescent border between it. 

Indeed, it was more than ten days after Yeussupha (17, Gambia) had arrived when he held my hand and wept through what was supposed to be an interview. His three friends sat at his side in support while I told them to not be ashamed to let go of any pain they had tied up in them. I told him it was okay to cry and he clung harder. And there was no self-consciousness, there was no question of why this scene was happening or what it meant. Everybody here already knows. In Lampedusa, in moments like these, you can cry openly. No migrant has developed the motivation to make crime so soon after being such gruesome victims of it. There is still just sadness.

And so, in the space of days, four of the world’s continents had been represented on this 14-square kilometer stone that’s too small to even make the map. On Sunday my friend from Rome who lives here part-time described the process of finding Lampedusa on Google Maps, zoom-zoom-zoom-zoom… We are nowhere to be found but the whole world keeps finding us.

It’s a Jacque Cousteau scene at the eastern edge of Cala Guitgia. You stare down at perfectly clear water where guppies and fish dart around sea urchins and shiftless jellyfish. It’s the first place I ever saw on the island and it continues to stagger me. I can still see how you can get drunk on this place, like I did for the first time last July. Scattered groups of refugees perched themselves on the rocks overlooking the water there too. More jogged up and down the length of the beach. Three others dug their fists into the sand and did sets of pushups.

. . .

Last night I was at the trendy port bar sipping Aperol and waiting for the 9:00pm flight to arrive, the Alitalia-Etihad 1818 from Palermo. The locals said it wouldn’t come from the west, where we were facing, but from the opposite direction on account of the wind. It was something else all the locals seemed to tacitly know about. 

Headlights cut across the night in a neat, winding queue while soft lounge music pumped from the speakers where I sat. It was a slow stream of cars rounding the bend of the road that leads from the perimeter of the runway, and down into the old port. The sight reminded me of the long arrival path of planes over Brooklyn on their final approach to LaGuardia Airport. It reminded me that I would be going home soon.

But I think Lampedusa is home now, too. I’ll be leaving a small box of toiletries and things from my kitchen with a friend, who offered to store them. My starter-kit for home will be ready when I return, a small but significant stake that makes Lampedusa ever-so-slightly less of a transient place.

. . .

This will be the last newsletter from Lampedusa until I return again. 

Monday, I go to Naples to meet Bartholo, my friend from Cameroon. We met last November when he arrived in Lampedusa as a surviving passenger of a capsized boat that took the lives of many, including his brother who drowned before his eyes. I never posted his story, because being so traumatized, he told me a different version of it that omitted the incident of the capsizing. 

A friend from the local NGO here told me what happened later; I talked to Bartholo about it and told him it was okay if he didn’t want to talk, but if he did, I’d listen. 

So, our second interview, and also our reunion, will happen next week when I meet him at his new state housing outside of Naples.