MotM Essay | Going Back to Where You Came From

Fishing boats docked for weather. Lampedusa, Italy; October 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

Fishing boats docked for weather. Lampedusa, Italy; October 2017. © Pamela Kerpius


27 October 2017

MotM Essay
Going Back To Where You Came From

Part I: Fireworks

Tu sei l’altra.” (“You are the other.”) –Duolingo

I arrived in Lampedusa in mid-September amidst a wave of tourists that, as it was explained to me by one of the owners of Bar Dell’Amicizia, and then reiterated by shop owners along Via Roma, was at a volume 40% higher than it was at the same time last year. You could feel it. I took two days at a hotel away from the fray in what I decided was a tiny vacation before my apartment in the center of town was ready and work would begin. Enza, one of the housekeeping ladies there befriended me last year and when she saw me in the reception area this year smothered me with hugs and sweaty kisses. Mid-September in Lampedusa feels truly like the peak of heat you would experience in the Midwest or in Midtown in July. So you sweat just standing. Enza’s workout stripping sheets from beds and pulling heavy, damp towels from the bathroom floors of the rooms all morning and into the afternoon, is enough to make the sweat pour off the ends of your brows, your hair, the tip of your nose. I didn’t care. Enza reminds me of my late grandmother, stout and smart-alecky, so then, probably not to be crossed either; I suspect there’s a particular contempt buried in there for any attempt at pretension, or probably more importantly, for any lacking in humor.

I arrived after four days in Rome where I reupped my Italian cell phone service and SIM card for mobile WiFi, a task that took about that long to complete after dopey days recovering from jetlag and stuffing myself with cornetto con crema with a friend. I was staying with him at his father’s house in the posh Quartiere Coppedè, a marble-floored space that would imply luxury, but in these particular quarters, inhabited by two bachelors, feels a little different, with stolen airline blankets covering the mattresses rather than bedspreads, wallpaper peeling in brittle strips, and a calendar from 2003 nailed to the wall of his father’s office. He’s retired now, so maybe it’s a little relic he likes. Maybe 2003 was a good year. Or maybe he altogether stopped seeing it. Literally, though, as we were tossing my luggage into the taxi for Fiumicino I was still testing the WiFi setup; halfway out of the heart of Rome I texted him via WhatsApp with frantic success: the WiFi was working. 

The flight to Lampedusa was direct, meaning tourists occupied almost every seat in every row. You can tell who they are because there are celebratory. A family spread out across the front half of the plane started with selfies at boarding that did not let up until final taxi to the gate on the ground in Lampedusa. But the couple next to me was quiet and as we approached the pelagic municipality from above (Lampedusa, of course, but also its tiny neighbor Linosa a few kilometers north) the man and I took turns pointing to sites from the window. There’s Lampione. An uninhabited table mountain west of the island. And there’s Capo Ponente. A popular overlook at its far western edge. There’s Isola dei Conigli, Rabbit Island, the most famous turquoise beachfront in Lampedusa. It was a Play-doughy version of a pop quiz, I suspect, for us both to find peace in the fact that neither of us were tourists and didn’t want to be perceived to be: there was the playbook, here was our team huddle. 

Cala Madonna, Cala Croce, Cala Guitgia––every beachfront we flew past in the final seconds before touchdown were veiled entirely in tourists under beach umbrellas as closely packed as New York tenements. A week later I would walk to Cala Croce in the late afternoon with a blanket to put over the sand. When I arrived a man with boorish confidence and a small entourage of women smiling up at him shouted to me that I was not allowed to put my blanket there. I asked why, but his answer came too fast and in an off-handed way that I couldn’t catch; I sighed and resigned with an eye roll and hauled myself up the dusty rocks on the side, where other stragglers were also spit out by the monopoly. But it was already too late to make camp. The clouds had rolled in and it was too cold to swim in the shade. Alberto, my friend from Rome who works at the local NGO, Mediterranean Hope, interrupted my frown, “Pamela is that you?” And so, with the splendor of having someone at my side speaking my own language fluently, a full unloading of the outrages of the tourist season began, crescendoing, finally, at the cliffside bar where we quit ourselves of the beach for an Aperol Spritz. It came at the cost of eight Euros, the waitress announced, excluding any bite of apertivo, a fine criminal act if one was ever perpetrated in Sicily.

This unforeseeable affront over a product that should not cost more than five or 6 Euros was a moment from which an entire scandal indeed would come to unfold. I couldn’t have anticipated it would be upon an 8-Euro Spritz that so much hostility would find its focal point, but it did.

. . .

Francesco* had been complaining for days about the people, the demands, the burnout. His aunt had rented me the apartment house where I was staying, where I was working at the patio table during the day on copywriting projects I commuted for electronically from the States, and where he would pop-in for a visit nearly every afternoon while en route to Cala Pisana for a quick swim before work. He, like every Lampedusan, had been working every day without a break since June. You can assume many are on-call 24 hours a day. They are tired. Tired actually undermines their true level of exhaustion, something I think, the more we talk, is reaching closer toward resentment, real anger. Almost the entire economy is sustained here on the money tourists bring with them to buy accommodations, transportation and boat tours, and, of course, dinners and Spritzes that come at inflated summertime prices. Once the warm weather ends, so does that flow of Euros, so Lampedusans find themselves at the whim of every full flight of passengers arriving starting from the early hours of the morning, until at least nine o’clock at night, and later when those flights are delayed for wind or weather. Francesco’s dad is a baggage handler at the airport and complains of back pain. Even if he is injured or unwell he will be called to service an incoming flight in the middle of the night, should one of those hypothetically delayed planes become a reality. He cannot say no to the call, because if he does you can assume he won’t have a job to return to tomorrow. 

At least, this is how it is conveyed to me, but I believe it. You can see the picked-at scab on the surface. Mimmo, my friend in town who owns a large scooter and car rental shop at the port, and who makes airport transfers for various hotels, will always be waiting in the arrivals hall when I step off any flight. He’s always there, just as is Dano, the driver for the hotel I sometimes stay at on the eastern edge of the island, in Cala Creta. In the summer, they can expect to make near-constant trips to and from the airport for drop-offs and pick-ups: day and night, seven days a week, the same luggage flopping into the vans, non-stop until the autumn rain puts an end to it. If Mimmo ever complains, I’m not privy to it, nor does he seem slowed down by it. He took to the barbecue grill at the dinner we went to at the campgrounds last weekend with gusto, flipping food, cursing the bits that slipped through the bars into the fire, prying open beer bottles, and ending it all with his characteristic smile. I would say Mimmo is Mickey Mouse, always adding a little laugh at the end of everything he says, but you know then, with that, things are not so simple.

The ports are overpacked with boats. The streets are overcrowded with cars and scooters. The air quality suffers here in paradise in the summer, and sometimes still when you’re central to town in the winter. With the heat, though, the fumes feel thicker, harder to evade. It’s hard to find a place to sit at the cafe. The music from the two competing stages at either end of Via Roma picks up in the wind and follows you all the way home, into your house, into the sheets and next to your pillow. They say the music stops at midnight, but I had laid there on many nights until after 1:30 waiting for that last song’s resolution note to reverberate finally into stillness. I wondered how the rest of Lampedusa fell asleep during this. Maybe this was all part of the high-season martyrdom; maybe in this season you don’t sleep. Francesco had reiterated, if not initiated many of these observations, and felt at his ends, he expressed, trying to find a moment of peace. He said he had heard the summer slate of songs so much, he could just as well pick up the mic and from memory sing them himself, he ached. “Pamela, every night the same songs.” We talked briefly one afternoon about his possibly leaving the island altogether, where there were different opportunities for work, or maybe for school. He wasn’t convinced entirely, but seemed relieved for the sympathy and for the outsider’s perspective. He told me I was “family” when I was here, and that if there was anything I ever needed I could call anytime, “at 4 o’clock in the morning if you have to,” and he’d come running. It was a nice salve against the coarse hordes of people, honestly. I felt taken care of.

He negotiated a rate for the house with his aunt that was much less than she’d charge a tourist. Given that I was arriving under different circumstances and, if it worked out, with the hope of having the place to return to again in the winter months, the rate seemed satisfactory, even if it was up to 50% higher than it was for most other long-term tenants in town. There was a yard attached with two olive and lemon trees, and bushes along the edge being eaten up by weeds. In the back, I found a sage bush. Some grapes hung shriveled and fermented on the vines that had been left unharvested. Certainly, for this outdoor space the price was higher. Francesco seemed envious though, “Look at all you get for this price,” he announced, as he fanned his arm across the small yard, imagining it, it seemed, as a grand estate. It made me skeptical. I thanked him again for the house, and then again, and every time he would make note of it with his king’s wave, which was upon every visit he made. It was the first clue as to what lie ahead. I tip-toed into my only real complaint, one about the roosters that would start to crow at 3:30 every day de rigueur. I didn’t say so outright for fear of offending him, but the sound that came from the lot next door every night was a lot like someone standing outside your bedroom window screaming. A faint response would follow from the chickens at the coop across town, a territorial game that would go until daybreak. He laughed and said he’d slaughter the cock if it kept bothering me. He had seen this sight before, he told me, when I asked somewhat rhetorically if he really knew how to kill a chicken, “Pamela, it’s the circle of life.”

I had actually interviewed Francesco before, last May when I was here before the mayoral election on the island that would take place in June. I had been collecting so much information about migrants coming to Lampedusa, but much less from locals. Francesco worked at the hotspot, the migrant reception center, years ago and speaks good English, so against the late afternoon sun one day before I left last spring, we talked. He described usually only having positive encounters with migrants when they arrived. He was sympathetic. He understood their plight and wanted to be a friend to them, and in some cases in the past, had been. The elections were ramping up hard then. Salvatore Martello and Guisi Nicolini were in the square or at their respective campaign offices making speeches and mingling over biscotti from Bar Dell’Amicizia with citizens and visitors. But Francesco made no case for any candidate, and like most Italians I meet, generally seemed to have no faith in any nominee that might appear on a ticket. The system was all too corrupt. Mostly, though, he seemed to really only want to keep up a culture of kindness, friendliness and warmth. This is Sicily, don’t forget. Bringing people in and making them feel cared for––strangers, neighbors, migrants, whoever––is a matter of pride. Metaphorically speaking, it makes sense that so many migrants would make their way to this island for salvation.

Of course, real life doesn’t exist in metaphors. When Francesco picked me up to bring me to the house on the first day, he told me about the hard days of summer I’d missed in July and August, about how ferragosto practically swallowed the island whole. A friend who owns a hotel and restaurant in Cala Creta said she had so many visitors that month that beachgoers had to lay their towels on the steps leading to the rocky waterfront, which was already packed full of people; it was hard to find space even to walk. Adele, a dear friend, worked up to 12 hours daily at the cafe serving the same espresso shots and cornetti, she said, until she was going batty. She had lost significant weight since I saw her in May because of the stress. A few days later, our friend Melissa was taking a pastry order at the cafe counter for a customer, and burst into tears after they left. I couldn’t piece together the specifics. Adele just said something about the repetitive motion of it, how people didn’t understand. I bumped into Gianbattista on the street later that week when he drove by in his car; he jumped out in spite of the swarm of traffic for a big hello hug, and he too––already fit from his work as a fireman––had a torso that must have shrunk to a fraction of its former size. In the high season inundation, Lampedusans looked like they were disappearing.

On the drive to the center, Francesco wove up and down the one-way streets to the house like he was giving me a tour of town, although I already knew it. He told me how some Tunisian migrants had been stirring up trouble recently. A few had been stealing bottles of wine and souvenirs from the shops on Via Roma, and, Francesco said, some of the townspeople had practically taken to the streets with pitchforks and torches. I realize now that in telling that story he never mentioned if he was among them, either in body or in spirit.

. . .

Martello, the new mayor, was elected in June on a platform of closing the migrant flow to Lampedusa, something Nicolini had been lauded for, up to and including receiving the UNESCO Peace Prize in April 2017 and meeting President Barack Obama in October 2016. But many Lampedusans I asked said she’d forgotten about the people of Lampedusa, that for all her efforts to accommodate migrants, she’d done nothing for them. Roundly, the complaint was about her cancellation of the annual fireworks display in September that commemorated the Madonna. Those fireworks would be cited again and again as what she failed to provide them. Occasionally someone would mention education. Francesco in May mentioned improved transportation to the mainland. But by and large, it was always the fireworks I heard about first.

When I’ve asked about Martello on separate occasions two friends have told me they believe he came to office to amend zoning laws that would allow him to build more hotels; he already owns a few on the island. If true, it’s a premise that promises, in fact, to keep Lampedusans entrenched deeper into a business model that weakens their own viability. More hotels sounds a lot like a reaction to make quick profits, and nothing like a plan for the future. While increasing tourism to the island is, in an economic sense, a initiative “for the people” of Lampedusa, it is not in its current form a sustainable one. 

Francesco rolled around the glass of water I poured him in his hand. He never sipped it. It was ceremonial, I guess. His dog was beside his chair, tangling the leash around his feet, sometimes popping up to scratch its muddy paws at his leg. I was asking him about alternative economies and business models for Lampedusa. Adele, for example, talks about the unpublicized history of the island that needs to be preserved. On a walk last April she pointed up the side of a hill beside the port. In the past it had been some kind of farmland that was uniquely designed with the island’s climate in mind. There was actually an historical marker next to it, but I never noticed it; what wasn’t grown over by weeds was faded in the sun. Adele has said it outright, “We are not just an island of salvation,” and she is right. I would also add, Lampedusa is not just a place of vacation. Its geography and landscape are striking, its community––residents, migrants, visitors––special, its place in Italian history (in fact, world history), unique. It’s so easy to see this as an outsider that I’m dumbstruck anyone would cling to the status quo. I’m stunned anyone would choose to develop it further without any initiative to build upon it in a way that preserves its integrity, and moreover, in a way that would allow residents to respond to the demands of that economy with equanimity, not haste.

I’m taking it personally. For me, Lampedusa feels like the last safe place. Of all the places I’ve been, it is the only one that so gracefully asks me to look not just inward at it, but outward from it. I always feel at once together and apart from it, in solitude and in its embrace when I am here. So it is distressing to watch the high season banish my friends and neighbors to the border of desperation. Francesco had even said it, it was a rush to a quick buck that motivated most locals, that it was all about money, its immediacy in the moment, that no one was thinking about the future.

The patio table where he and I sat seemed like a safe space to commiserate, so I gave him my own light-hearted example to connect.

I told him about the 8-Euro Spritz.

“What do you expect, we have to live,” his tone turning sharp.

I was taken aback given everything we had already said and seemed to have been in agreement about. I thought I had been clear I was on his side. So I softened to offset the blowup. I reiterated that of course I wanted Lampedusans to thrive, that the Spritz––that stupid 8-Euro Spritz––was simply illustrative of something the community couldn’t sustain. I said the business makes it difficult for regulars, both locals and repeat visitors like me, to afford living here. But he told me I am not from here, I don’t pay taxes here, which was true, I admitted, adding that I do however spend about six months out of the year in Italy for work nowadays. But he insisted on the perfect dig in response, “You’re just a tourist.”

He was angry and trying hard to make it sound like this was actually the voice of diplomacy, hedging, by dropping his volume when he remembered to from time to time. Seeing his psychology so crisply allowed me to be calm. I flicked my eyes back to my computer screen to nudge him in the direction of maybe leaving now so I could get back to work. The problem with becoming so visibly angry with someone you considered a friend, or was it “family,” though is that you can’t pick up and leave with so much unresolved energy between you. I stopped talking altogether, hoping my silence would encourage the end of this talking-to.

He persisted anyway. It was a string of contradictions against all the complaints he had regularly made so explicit before. I stared back at him and naively stoked the fire: I heard Martello is in it to expand his hotel business.

“Yeah, so what?”

“Well, it’s corrupt.”

“Everyone’s corrupt. You think this is the only place in the world with politicians who are corrupt?” Donald Trump is my president, I said, as my head almost bobbled off my shoulders, of course I didn't think that. I pressed that it was for exactly this reason we should be determined to aim higher, rather than follow false swagger into defeat. He said that’s how things are and they will never change. As an American, of course, my first and only thought was well, not with that attitude, it won’t, mister! But we were done. He had stopped listening. He was wagging his finger at me. The dog kept on at his feet. I could see his temper morphing. Anytime I began to talk he’d slap the dog down and yell at it to sit. All that anger meant for me ending with a smack on the back of that dog.

“That’s the way things are and if you don’t like it you can go,” he said, as I sat in the chair he owned, on the land that was his, where my belongings were placed through every room of the house to which his family held the deed.

My whole life I had heard that line be put to people who had been coming to the United States with their non-native opinions, their non-conformist ideas, their non-English language, and all of their skin colors, but it had never been put to me. If you don’t like it you can go, goes that rally cry that always seems to come on the heels of some line about this being the land of the free.

The point was to make me feel small, immobile, limited. Although, we know those feelings of smallness and immobility weren’t really about me at all, and only the result of the fear my questions struck in him. Still, in the moment, it made me feel estranged, and afraid. What was I doing here?

The only migrants I had seen until then were a few Tunisians loitering around the church. I didn’t know how to talk to them because I don’t speak their languages, Arabic and French. My friends who are mediators in the hotspot told me it would be difficult to communicate, and they would be unable to translate for me since it could mean losing their jobs. There was another level. Tunisians are acculturated to Italy. They have a similar lifestyle. They frequent similar cafes, listen to Italian radio and TV broadcasts. They are not stepping into a blank new land with no sense of direction, unlike all of the West African migrants I would meet, for example; and to approach Tunisian men as a single woman implies something more, and puts me, potentially, in a place of having to manage the romantic intentions they think I might be approaching with. I had been giving it both too much thought and been too occupied in my work from New York to pursue meeting any one at all, and it isolated me further. As for West Africans, none were arriving. Because of a deal struck with Italy and the Libyan Coast Guard, a blockade has been set up on the sea outside Tripoli that, according to the last UNHCR report, has the number of migrants stranded there in the inhuman conditions you’ve read about in every MotM profile before, in the upwards of 20,000. Do you think it is an accident that the striking of that deal coincided with the high season?

Later that day Yoro left me a message on WhatsApp. He was sad and needed to talk because he got news from a friend still stranded in Libya that on 6 June 2017 around 60 people died in the sea, among them a number of his friends. One of them was at his side when he was sick in the coastal camp before he departed for Lampedusa. He called the guy his “brother,” because he took care of him like he was family. He was stressed, he said, and couldn’t sleep. I messaged him back right away wanting to know their names; we could do them the small honor then of remembering them together. 

Seikou was his brother's name.

Lamin was another who drowned with him in the Mediterranean Sea.

Yoro said, “There are more, but I cannot name them all.”

. . . 

I called someone I knew, a man I used to see who also used to live and work on the island, and who understood, it turns out, how easy you could be made to feel like an outsider here. He had had encounters of his own. We talked on the phone for an hour. He said he had heard Lampedusans call people from Sicily foreigners before. Another friend said the same to me recently, that as a woman from the north she is called a foreigner on the arm of her Lampedusan boyfriend. No Italian can pass this bar of entry, apparently. But then, just to complicate it, birth statistics on the island have been at almost zero for decades; almost all Lampedusans have been and will continue to be born in hospitals in Palermo; there is no hospital in Lampedusa. In fact, if anyone in recent years has been born in Lampedusa they are not the children of locals, they are the babies of migrants who've been rescued at sea.

The holiday for the Madonna was a day away. Martello made sure there would be fireworks this year. I think if he could have spelled Nicolini’s name in the sky with fire he would have, like Daddy Warbucks at the end of Annie (1982), but adding at the front of it a big, fat vaffanculo. It would have been fitting. Then, it might just as well have read as a signal to those stuck across the sea in Libya, too.

It had been less than ten days on the island, but I wasn’t able to stick around to see the fireworks. I was gasping for air. I packed my backpack, walked the five minutes to the airport, and found a flight to Palermo where I met the man who consoled me on the phone.


*Name has been changed.