March 20, 2010
Chink chink. Whack whack. Hammers bounce off chisels. Lumps of plaster drop like overripe fruit exposing ancient stones, ghosts of centuries past.
I’m giddy, over the moon. And look! A stone arch where an ugly closet used to be! I love going backward in time.
But like the Sicilian saying goes: Quantu cchiù autu è lu munti, tantu cchiù profunna è la valli, the higher the mountain, the deeper the valley.
Neighbors—a stocky elderly couple—knock at the door one day just after I’ve arrived back from Rome. “Signora, there’s a problema.” They seem agitated. “Come see.”
I follow them up a flight of steps into their home. The houses in Ragusa Ibla are fitted together like jigsaw pieces; neighbors live over me, under me, to the right and to the left. The couple waves arms around and jabbers in sync. What in God’s name are they pointing at?
When my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I see what must be dozens of cracks like spider legs crawling over the walls. Bad news indeed, but what do these blessed spider legs have to do with me?
“Signora, all the pounding away in your house has ruined our walls.”
For a minute the room lacks oxygen. Are these cracks really new? Sicily is on a fault line. This could have happened years ago. I want to bring up these ideas, but of course I don’t. Instead I say in a voice sharp as a prickly pear, “Let me speak to the project manager. We’ll resolve this.”
Things are getting tangled up. Cu’ havi terra, havi guerra, Sicilians say, owning land is like fighting a war.
What will this cost? I’m hemoragging cash. The dollar is at an all-time low. I consult with Sicilians in the know.
Mason: No way we could we have done that. Impossibile. You’d be a fool to pay a centesimo.
Friend 1: Sicilians see Americans as a giant slot machine. Don’t pay.
Project Manager: It’s possible we did cause the cracks. We’ll never know. Pay up. Keep the peace.
Friend 2: It’s extortion, pure and simple.
Have they typecast me? The lady with the American dollars? Have I destroyed their walls? Do I now have two houses to restore? What to do?