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At a book festival in Sicily, admiring a tranquil lifestyle and remembering a father’s bedtime stories about drunks and prostitutes, based on his time spent Irgun gun-running at Italy’s southern tip

Etgar Keret
July 15, 2011
Taormina, Sicily.(Giovy/Flickr)
Taormina, Sicily.(Giovy/Flickr)

The pleasant-voiced captain apologizes again over the loudspeaker. The plane was scheduled to take off two hours earlier and we still haven’t left. “Our crew still hasn’t been able to determine the problem with the plane, so we need to ask our passengers to disembark. We will update you as soon as we can.”

The skinny young guy sitting next to me says, “It’s me. I did it. When we got on the plane, I talked to my wife on my cell, remember? She told me she was on the way to the beach with our daughter and the baby. I’m sitting here with my safety belt buckled, and all I can think about is, why the hell am I going to Italy? Instead of spending Saturday with my wife and daughters, why am I flying six hours, including a connecting flight, for some hour-long meeting my boss said was important? I hope the plane breaks down. I swear, that’s what I thought; I hope the plane breaks down, and look what happened.”

As we re-enter the terminal, a big woman wearing a flowered dress and dragging a suitcase the size of coffin goes up to the skinny guy and asks him where we’re coming from. “Who cares where we’re coming from,” he winks at me, “the main thing is that we’re on our way home.”

A few hours later, when I get on the small, crowded replacement plane that will take me to Rome on my way to Sicily, I’ll walk down the aisle and notice that the skinny guy isn’t there. Throughout the flight, I’ll picture him on the beach in Tel Aviv building sandcastles with his wife and daughter, and I’ll be jealous.

I also have a wife and little boy waiting for me in Tel Aviv. From the start, this trip was really inconvenient for me too, and it’s becoming less desirable with every minute of delay. On Saturday evening I’m supposed to take part in an event at the small Sicilian book festival in the town of Taormina. When the organizers invited me, I agreed to go because I thought I could take my family with me, but a few weeks ago, my wife realized that she had a prior work commitment, and I was stuck with my own promise to attend the festival. The trip, originally planned for a week, would be shortened to two days, and now it turns out that, due to the supernatural powers of a skinny young guy who wanted to play in the sand with his kid, half of those two days would be wasted in airports.

Because of the delay, I miss my connecting flight from Rome to Catania, in Sicily. When I finally make it to the island, it’s another long ride to Taormina, and by the time I arrive at the hotel, it’s already dark. A mustached reception clerk gives me the key to my room. Lying asleep on a small couch in the lobby is a cute little boy, about 7, who looks just like the reception clerk, minus the mustache. I climb into bed with all my clothes on and fall asleep.

The night goes by in a long, dark, dreamless instant, but the morning makes up for it. I open the window to find that I’m in a dream: Stretched out before me is a gorgeous landscape of beach and stone houses. A long walk and a few conversations in broken English punctuated with a lot of enthusiastic arm-waving reinforce the unreal feel of the place. After all, I know this sea very well: It’s the same Mediterranean that’s only a five-minute walk from my house in Tel Aviv, but the peace and tranquility projected by the locals here is something I have never encountered before. The same sea, but without the frightening, black, existential cloud I’m used to seeing hanging over it. Maybe this is what Shimon Peres meant back in those innocent days when he talked about “the new Middle East.”

This is Taormina’s first book festival. The people on the organizing team are extremely nice, and the atmosphere is relaxed; this festival seems to have everything but an audience at the events. Not that I’m passing judgment on the city’s residents: When you’re in the heart of a paradise like this, in the middle of a hot July, would you rather spend the day at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world or in a mosquito-riddled public garden having your mind numbed by a wild-haired writer speaking strangely accented English?

But in the harmonious atmosphere of Taormina, even a small audience isn’t considered a failure. I think that these pleasant people, who speak such a lovely, melodious Italian and live in such gorgeous surroundings, would accept even boils and plagues with an understanding smile. After the event, the mild-mannered English translator points to the dark sea and tells me that during the day you can see the Italian mainland from here. “You see those lights there?” he asks, pointing toward a few flickering pinpoints. “That’s Reggio Calabria, the southernmost city in Italy.”

When I was a kid, my parents used to tell me bedtime stories. They’re both Holocaust survivors, and during the war, the stories they were told by their parents were never read from books because there were no books to be had, so they made up stories. As parents themselves, they continued that tradition and, from a very young age, I felt a special pride because the bedtime stories I heard every night couldn’t be bought in any store; they were mine alone. My mother’s stories were always about dwarves and fairies, while my father’s were about the time he lived in southern Italy, from 1946 to 1948.

His fellow members of the Irgun wanted him to try to buy weapons for them, and after asking around and pulling a few strings, my father found himself at the southernmost tip of Italy, from which you can see the Sicilian coast—Reggio Calabria. There he rubbed shoulders with the local Mafia and, in the end, persuaded them to sell him rifles for the Irgun to use to fight the British. Since he had no money to rent an apartment, the local Mafia offered him free lodgings in a whorehouse they owned there, and that, it seems, was the best time of his life.

The heroes of my father’s bedtime stories were always drunks and prostitutes, and as a child, I loved them very much. I didn’t know yet what a drunk and a prostitute were, but I did recognize magic, and my father’s bedtime stories were filled with magic and compassion. And now, 40 years later, here I am, not far from the world of my childhood stories. I try to imagine my father coming here after the war, 19 years old at the time, to this place that, despite its many troubles and dark alleys, projects such a sense of peace and tranquility. Compared to the horrors and cruelty he witnessed during the war, it’s easy to imagine how his new acquaintances from the underworld must have appeared to him: happy, even compassionate. He walks down the street, smiling faces wish him a good day in mellifluous Italian, and for the first time in his adult life, he doesn’t have to be afraid or hide the fact that he’s a Jew.

When I try to reconstruct those bedtime stories my father told me years ago, I realize that beyond their fascinating plots, they were meant to teach me something. Something about the almost desperate human need to find the good in the least likely places. Something about the desire not to beautify reality, but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face. And here, in Sicily, 63 years after my father left it, facing a few dozen pairs of riveted eyes and a lot of empty plastic chairs, that mission suddenly seems more possible than ever.

Translated by Sondra Silverston

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer. He writes a regular column from Israel for Tablet.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.

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