Following the defeat of the Athenian military expedition to Syracuse in 413 BC, many Athenians avoided capture, and received food and shelter from the local populace, by reciting verses from Euripides, the most popular Greek poet among the Sicilians. Finding their way to Athens, these survivors, in the words of Plutarch, "greeted Euripides with affectionate hearts."
What a tribute to the power of literature! Yet traditional Sicilian hospitality to strangers in distress may also have played a role in the treatment accorded the Athenians. This summer I was the beneficiary of such hospitality.
I departed from Palermo by car, a stranger to Sicily, not speaking the language, having an inadequate map, and struggling with the manual gear-shift of my rented vehicle. As I was leaving, the heavens opened up, unleashing the most violent rainstorm I have ever experienced. Once outside the city, I became lost in rugged, barren countryside.
"The term 'countryside' implies soil transformed by labor," wrote Giuseppe di Lampedusa in his novel, "The Leopard," "but the scrub still clinging to the slopes was still in the very same state of scented tangle in which it had been found by Phoenicians, Dorians, and Ionians when they disembarked in Sicily, that America of antiquity." He might have added "and in the same state as found by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, French, and Spanish, those succeeding conquerors of the island."
The road I traveled was narrow and steep, with many hairpin turns. Some sections were covered by a sea of mud from the storm. Inching along, I realized I would never reach my original destination, the medieval town of Erice on the west coast. Instead, I headed for Calatafimi, recalling it as the site of a celebrated Garibaldi victory in his March of the Thousand to liberate Sicily from Bourbon rule and unite Italy.
The sun was already low in the sky. I was not happy at the prospect of driving under these conditions at night. Ahead of me, I spotted a car about to exit from a dirt road. I flagged down the driver. "Is this the way to Calatafimi?" He spoke no English, but gestured to me to follow him. More hills and mud, the only sign of life a shepherd and his flock.
We arrived at a town. I followed my guide through the steep streets. He stopped and called to someone. A man and a woman appeared on a balcony. His name was Mario and hers, Frances. They were born in Calatafimi, married there, emigrated to the United States, and had returned for a three-month stay.
My guide, Vito, their nephew, was a Carabiniere, a member of the Italian national police. Vito and Mario took me to the small local hotel. No room was available.
After a discussion between the two in Italian, Vito generously invited me to a family celebration and to spend the night at his parents' home. The dinner was at the house of another uncle. My appearance startled the 20 assembled family members. Vito introduced me. I shook hands with everyone and was immediately made to feel at home.
My fellow celebrants included Vito's parents, his charming wife, who is a schoolteacher, and their young son, Christian. Vito's father-in-law was from Erice and for 35 years has served as a police officer in Palermo. Our host worked at a bank. He and his wife had two children, Irena and a son in high school who hopes to study law at the university in Palermo. Also present was Vito's cousin, a priest. In the group, only Mario and Frances spoke English.
ALAS, I was not able to recite Euripides. I summoned my few words of Italian for purposes of conversation.
For dinner, our hostess served couscous with fish sauce from an immense ceramic bowl, sausages, fruit and the sweet pastries so dear to the heart of every Sicilian. The event was joyful for the family and for me.
Following dinner, I joined Vito in a walk that took us past ancient vineyards and olive- and fig-tree orchards. The night air was fragrant. In the sky of this remote region of Sicily I saw the familiar sight of the Big Dipper.
In the morning, Vito mapped out for me the route to my next destination, Segesta, the isolated hilltop site of a magnificent Greek temple. We had known each other for less than a day, spoke different languages, were a generation apart, and came from different backgrounds. Yet we felt very close. On departing, we embraced.
Like the Athenians in distress more than 2,000 years ago, I had been the fortunate recipient of Sicilian hospitality.