When we arrived in Catania two weeks ago, my mother and I wound our way through the airport to the car rental counter and waited for an hour. This is the part of travel no one talks about – we Instagram the beach and our exotic breakfast, not the rental car line. I was anxious to leave the airport and head to our apartment on the water, but we needed the Fiat 500 to make our trek around the island. I sat on my suitcase and made small talk with the other English speakers in line. My mother brought me espresso in a tiny plastic cup and I changed my leggings for a skirt. I could already feel the Sicilian sun – the pulse of heat pushing up from Catania’s concrete jungle. It was both intensely foreign and achingly familiar.
Eventually, I drove our pint sized car through the city on faith and vague memories (the rental car agent looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for a map) and we parked on Capo Mulini’s lungomare. My mother recognized the apartment from the Google earth photos. The home is small – just two bedrooms and a living room, but guests live on the balcony. We didn’t spend a lot of time inside, but we ate picnic lunches and sipped our near constant espresso on the patio overlooking the Mediterranean. We watched Capo Mulini’s harbor full of boats and swimmers. We watched our Sicilian neighbors lower baskets down to the fruit vendor’s three-wheeled truck and hoist fresh produce back up to the third floor. We watched kayaks and paddle boats circle the Cyclops rocks; locals say the towering volcanic lumps were thrown at Odysseus on his legendary journey home from war.
We ended our trip with two days on an isolated island north of Sicily. Panarea feels like a secret paradise – there are no cars on the island and visitors arrive by hydrofoil. Electricity and running water came to Panarea in the 1980’s and now there are several hotels and wonderful restaurants. Most people spend just a few hours on the island, but we stayed two nights. We returned to a familiar hotel and shopped in the same overpriced boutiques we’d found nearly a decade ago. But mostly we sat on the sun warmed rocks and jumped into the clear sea.
For me returning to Sicily is ideal respite: I know my way around (mostly), I can speak the language (poorly), and I love the water (completely). But the island still offers the alternative perspective that most travelers seek. I can move around with ease because it is familiar, but the place is foreign enough to shift my gaze, to remind me of the vast space in the world. Time is languid – maybe because of the heat or maybe because Sicilian conversation is dramatic and intense and takes a while. We rested well. We measured our days by the sun instead of the clock; we ate when we were hungry and lingered over our wine. We watched people and counted our blessings.
In the end it wasn’t the picture perfect, Intstagram-able moments that made my vacation great. It was the in-between moments: the first espresso in the rental car line, the hugs and tears from my dear Sicilian friends, the wine and the fresh picked peach on our Capo Mulini balcony, Panarea’s jumping rock. It was the smell and feel of the ocean as only a mountain dweller can experience the water: in stark relief. And the perspective that travel promises necessitates returning home. It is so good for my soul to go, but it is so great to be home.