4 April 2017: Landing In Lampedusa


Greetings from Lampedusa! 

There’s a lot to cover already. Here’s the run-down in three parts.

Getting Here
For me, the route is always the same. I boarded the same late evening flight from John F. Kennedy International that I’ve taken enough times to become friendly with the flight attendants. This time, I sat next to a Russian physicist who showed me graphs that described the shape of protons, and told me that if a proton is the size of a blueberry then the atom it orbits is equivalent to the size of the earth. So that’s how small a proton is, and that was gleaned just while we picked over mushy pasta dinners. Just think of what lies beyond.

That flight landed around 10:00am Italian local time at Rome Fiumicino, and then came customs. My sister texted me this morning asking what the Italian immigration officers ask me since I come through so much. I said that that was hilarious because they don’t ask me anything unless they’re male, in which case they’re flirting with me and not looking at my passport and stamping over existing visa stamps. I had a female officer processing me yesterday, so the stamp landed on a new, clean page. 

Seven hours later I boarded a bus at the gate that took me to the plane I boarded to Palermo. The flight is fast, quiet. An Alitalia flight attendant hands you a green tea scented hand wipe and a cup of water or orange juice. Orange juice is big on intra-Italy flights. I can’t think of gulping down that sort of acidic viscosity at 30,000 feet, so I’m going to strike the popularity of that one up to cultural nuance. 

Palermo Falcone-Borsellino International was crowded when I arrived. A flight to Milan was delayed two hours on account of weather, so the Sky Bar restaurant was backed up too. Vicenzo, my usual waiter wasn’t working. A lot of food was sold out; it was 30 minutes before finally a cold panino arrived, dinner. But it was a window of time occupied by conversation with a Milanese marketing executive who mistook my age for that of his 22 year old daughter. Bless that man.

I boarded a bus at the gate that took me to the edge of the apron where I boarded the plane to Lampedusa. It then goes like this: leave your roller bag on the ground, because there’s no room onboard for it; they’ll load it right then in the belly instead; climb the stairs, take your seat and buckle up.

Firmly buckle up.

You will be tired, but you will not sleep. It’s a tiny propeller plane that rattles into the sky in a way that gives you a new awareness of your mortality. I gave up on Jesus sometime before the third grade, but crossed myself once, and then again, just after a streak turbulence knocked the flight attendant off her feet and she darted a terror-stricken look to her colleague in the back.

By some miracle this plane always lands. 

Being Here
The smell of the air on the ground is extraordinarily bright. It smells like the sea. We are in the sea. It all adds up. But the air has a different texture to it. The air in Lampedusa sort of feels like its own organism, like some gazing entity moving with you. I grab my roller bag on the tarmac, then my checked bag from the belt inside. 

Mimmo’s just outside to greet me. He’s the guy from the local taxi service that helps me with my luggage to my apartment. Mimmo is the friendliest person you will ever meet and he always pretends he knows exactly what I mean when I’m butchering sentences in his language that my brain hasn’t warmed up enough to speak clearly yet.

My mind is confused for the language change. My body is confused for the time change. I take a 5 minute shower. That’s how much hot water you get here, where usually the weather is too warm to require anything more than a tepid stream. But it’s still spring, and the sea air can cool things dramatically when the sun sets. There are no heaters in Lampedusa. Maybe somebody on the island has one, but they’re costly. You lay under a heavy pile of cold blankets that you patiently wait for your body to heat. 

I wake up with jet lag that’s heavy like a hangover. That acute pain was swept away with a wave of ciao’s and ben tornato’s from my friends at the local cafe, The Royal, which I call my office because I’m always planted there working off their WiFi.

On Via Roma I meet four young men from Ghana and one more from The Gambia, all of whom have been here since March 20th. 

I go grocery shopping and the guy grating my order of pecorino at the cheese counter wants to know if I write a book about this time in Lampedusa, what language will it be in? There was an overture of “inglese!” that synced with me saying the same from his mates who were quicker to realize than he the obviously faint flicker of fluency I currently posses in Italian.

At Cala Palme, the little strip of beach littered with old fishing ropes and broken boats in the old port, I run into three more young men from Gambia. Ibrahim is 17 and traveled for a year and 5 months. Lamin is 27 and traveled for 9 months. And Musa is also 17, whose trip to Lampedusa took 7 months. 

Going Forward
Today alone I met at least four new friends, and reconnected with literally dozens of old friends and acquaintances. This happens across the space of a four minute walk along the main drag, Via Roma

By nature, I spend most of my time alone in New York. When I arrive in Sicily, something switches, and I find myself depressed if I’m not in the constant swing of socializing. Something happens when I get here. The need to be among people just turns on. I don’t have any explanation for it, except that the purpose of greeting one another seems to be the primary means of survival here.

There is a constant cycle of checking up on one another in this network. Drop-ins at the cafe for a coffee or wine, which could go for hours or just a couple of minutes, yield eight others doing the same. Often, it’s not even as organized as that. Most of the time, in fact, it’s just walking down the street and greeting a neighbor. There’s a steady system of check-ins, and it gives everyone a feeling of support.

That’s really the mode of operation in these parts, which I find especially prominent in Lampedusa over the rest of Italy; here, where the space is so small that if anyone ignored each other they might end up with nothing at all. They might end up forgotten.

When I met Ibrahim, Lamin and Musa late in the afternoon today, they expressed much the same sentiment about how they wanted to be. Now that they were in Italy they wanted to do their best to contribute. Lamin said verbatim that the only way to get through life was to help one another and to add something unique. Everyone can add something to society to make it better. Everyone can say hi.

He and Ibrahim and Musa all thanked God that they were even alive to have the chance to do that. Three passengers that traveled with them on the Mediterranean Sea drowned after their rubber boat sprang a leak. Lamin said they all should have died, but somehow they didn’t. 

They made it back from the brink to the shores of this tiny island. Did Lampedusa save them?

Tomorrow will likely move a lot like today did. There will be a lot of planned and accidental meetings. There will probably be more refugees on the street to meet who didn’t come out today. There won’t be a whole lot of structure to it. It’s just the act of going forward through it that will give it meaning in the end.