11 April 2017: The Moon When The Sky Clears
Coming Out of the Clouds
Two days ago I was at the central cafe in town, Bar dell’Amicizia. I was working, lightly, ticking away at transcribing notes, since it was just Sunday, so quiet. It was cloudy, and it had been that way for what felt like an eternity but was actually just three or four days, so everything felt slower still. It was gray. It was slow. Nothing moved. It was just that droning, diffused, flat daylight through low clouds with a damp wind for days.
I watched the afternoon turbo prop come in across the threshold of the runway, and this is the biggest event of the day. It happens in a blip, an explosion of sound for a few seconds until all that’s left again is the gray sky.
. . .
Before I arrived at Amicizia, I took my normal loop up the hill to the end of Via Roma to see if any of the guys from the center had congregated on their usual benches, but no one was there. The sky, when it’s gray like this, could at any moment become rain, and with the threat of rain, no one will come out. Refugees in the center really only have one set of clothes, so if they get stuck in a storm, that’ll be it. There’s no dry outfit to change into. Venturing through the weather is just too extravagant of an act.
I waited at the benches a few days before for two scheduled interviews with Lamin (27, Gambia) and Bob (23, Gambia), but it was intermittent rain then too. There are always no-shows in cloudy weather, which is deflating, but of course I understand. I swung through the center of town on the next day, also, to see if they’d come round, but they weren’t there. Two very young guys from The Gambia, Ibrahim and Musa, I was told, a few days before that, were transferred to Sicily already, so it was starting to look like Bob and some of the rest had probably gone now, too.
You just don’t know. The cloud cover spins your radar. You can’t tell what’s going on, or if anything is going to happen soon. Time moves slow when this matted net of clouds seals out the rest of the world. From minute to minute, hour to hour, there’s no variation.
Meanwhile back at the office that night at The Royal, there’s some kind of moto racing that’s been on the television for days. I don’t know. Sky Sport HD has been broadcasting what looks like something called the Moto Grand Prix, but to me it’s just a bunch of men in sponsored gear looping a track on two fat rubber wheels. The long takes of which are broken up by more men on microphones talking into the camera in a way that only makes me want to rail against the patriarchy.
There is a swarm of men around me as I watch this, and this is normal. Some want to take me to dinner, most just sit and stare. As an American you always have the excuse that, Sorry, I Don’t Understand, I Don’t Speak Very Good Italian, and you look back at your laptop screen and keep writing without further spectacle. It’s all part of the scenery, the experience. But one is being particularly persistent tonight and Gianluca behind the bar gives me a knowing look and shoos him away for me with surprising diplomacy. Gianluca and I became fast friends because he has family and friends from the Dominican Republic and so speaks Spanish, meaning we can communicate better.
I leave the office and I’m walking at a fast clip to evade the attention of another guy who’s been waiting outside to talk to me. Fast is not fast enough, and I am a New Yorker, to put that in perspective. He’s a little overweight and is really keeping up in spite of himself. I already told him before that I wasn’t interested, but he asks me again if I like him and if I want to go dancing with him, he, who I know is more than fifteen years my junior. So I’d had it, and told him again, no, and that I was old enough to be his mother, even if the math on that is not exactly true. His hearty jog stopped to a stand still.
This of is all part of a game of battle of the sexes that you’re automatically enrolled here to play. I know how this goes though, for even if you do find someone interesting and you betray your interest, it is now in the interest of protecting his power for him to show less interest. Got that? It’s complicated by the fact that I’m American and therefore a tourist attraction, so who knows how sincere one’s interest is anyway. This may sound like a generalization, and it is, but I can only tell you the patterns I’ve observed. Anyone who is more familiar with the culture of Italian romance and gender relations is free to confirm or deny my findings. For godssake, the floor’s all yours.
. . .
Someone once told me Bar dell’Amicizia is the “most important bar in Lampedusa,” which as a New Yorker, there is a no more absurd proposition. It is a plainly lit coffee bar with a collection of plastic chairs on a back patio. That’s it. And in a town of only a few thousand. But the statement holds true by virtue of the constant number of meetings that happen here. It’s all the in name Amicizia, friendship. It really is the most important bar in Lampedusa.
I was still ticking away at my keyboard with my puffy jacket draped over my lap to keep warm when a friend rushed onto the patio to hug me hello. She’d been abroad for months and just arrived home to the island on that afternoon flight I’d watched come in. (“It was so scary,” she said. Everyone finds the Madonna while losing altitude on that thing, I swear to god.)
We met for lunch the next day and took a long walk along the sea. We stopped at Cala Guitgia on the sand. I waved hello to a couple of refugees I met a few days ago who were passing by; they sat together at another corner of the beach.
My friend explained how Lampedusa is misrepresented in Italy as a place without history. There’s a derogatory term I’ve heard before, too, that people from Lampedusa are “savages.” She told me why the people of Lampedusa don’t like the documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), because the movie shows them as back-woods and antiquated––unsophisticated––like people of another time.
She says little kids don’t play with slingshots in the bushes like the movie portrays. Sure, it happens, it’s a little novelty, but it’s not a normal form of diversion. And for that, she’s right. Most kids I see on the streets are peddling around on bikes with Bluetooth speakers blasting techno. It’s completely annoying and like anything you’d see in a big city.
The people of Lampedusa, she says, have been conditioned to live for the short-term within the current economic structure. The island is a place sustained by a high season of tourists flooding in, to bars, restaurants, to hotels and boat tours, that with the exception of a rare few, will be closed completely for six months out of the year, or more. My friend believes––and I agree––that there is a richness to be developed from its history that is largely unwritten. If people knew what Lampedusa was about, it could be recognized as more than just a holiday spot, and instead as a place that’s truly incorporated into the Italian identity.
Lampedusa’s credibility as a part of Italy actually seems to be the thing that’s at stake. Which is also to say, as long as it’s thought of as a place set adrift with the socially and culturally insignificant, there won’t be much urgency to provide it with the resources it very desperately needs to manage the flow of migrants it works with daily.
Put that heavy blanket of clouds over it and you start to see how emotionally debilitating the ebb of Lampedusa’s character can be. That space is a heavy infinity that’s hard to see your way out of.
But then, just like that, the clouds do start to break up. They did while I continued to walk with my dearly-missed friend, and it felt warm for the first time in days.
By nightfall the sky was cleared enough to catch the moon. You would not believe the brightness of moonlight pouring through your windows then. You would not believe the expression of the clouds when they pass in front of a full moon that’s over the sea that’s only meters away from where you’re laying down to sleep.
That is the other side of Lampedusa’s character, its salvation. Now you can go to sleep because you know there will finally be some sunlight to wake up to.