Sicilian Jug and Panamanian Seashells
A Nebulous Number of Days of Atomity and Memory
Sicily and Seashells
I recently realized a wardrobe I’ve had for years is now about 100 years old and that I needed to start caring for it like the treasure that it is. I was nourishing it with some oil, probably for the first time since it became part of my home, and in doing so, I took a moment to relish a stunning ceramic blue jug I picked up in the middle of Sicily. Currently, it rests tucked in a niche-like spot, on the floor, in between the wardrobe and another antique – and I rarely notice it.
My memories of Sicily are a bit sketchy as I was there in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It’s likely that I have a journal somewhere about this adventure, but my journals are buried in a storage locker. So, I can’t verify that everything I write here is factual. But it’s my truth as I remember it today.
I had studied Italian Renaissance history in university (that is a fact) and, consequently, I have been to Italy a few times. But Sicily holds both memories of fear and wonder for me. Previous trips to Italy were self-guided explorations, but venturing to Sicily seemed easier with a group.
But by the time we arrived in Palermo, we had been warned so many times about the high crime rate that it became a fearful experience from the moment we stepped off the boat. I don’t know if the city is still riddled with pickpockets and purse-snatchers, but at the time we were there, Italian judiciaries were being regularly murdered by organized crime elements. It probably would have been more appropriate for us to have been warned about being collateral damage from a car bombing. But Palermo is a city of contrasts, transcendent beauty, and glorious architecture, and I toured explored it dodging imaginary rogues and feeling constantly anxious.
Fortunately, the people running the tour stopped chiming the persistent warning bells, so by the time we arrived at Taormina, my parasympathetic nervous system had calmed down. Taormina, unlike Palermo, is a haven for jetsetters and its streets are buzzing with the affluent and famous. It’s rather magnificent, but when we ventured further inland to the Villa Romana del Casale, a Unesco World Heritage site and home to one of the richest, largest, and varied collections of Roman mosaics in the world, this history nerd was overcome with awe.
The one and only item I have remaining from this trip is this rustic blue jug, purchased in a small village at which we stopped either to or from Agrigento, whose Valley of the Temples (this site, Greek in origin) is astounding. I managed to keep the earthenware safe despite only being part way through our itinerary which also included a non-guided exploration of the Amalfi Coast. How I managed to keep the ceramic piece whole is baffling, but I am ever so grateful it made it home intact. There is something enigmatically luminous about its colouring and form that makes my heart break into chorus when I pause to appreciate it.
The painted shells at the base of the vessel are from another part of the world entirely, from Isla Contadora, which rests off the mainland of Panama. The island, at least then, was a tranquil spot with minimally populated beaches and, although I gathered many perfectly formed shells, for some reason, I also brought back a handful of shells worn through by the sea and shifting sands – and then decided to paint them.
I don’t know why the imperfections charmed me as much as they did. I have since learned that, for environmental reasons, one shouldn’t collect shells from beaches, because leaving them where they are is one of the easiest ways to protect marine life and make a small contribution to saving the oceans. So, do keep that in mind the next time you have the luxury of spending time at a beach splendent with shells and are tempted to bring home these natural souvenirs. By removing even one, you may deprive a marine life form of a home.
My stay at Isla Contadora was free of fear, other than when I had to take a small airplane to and from the island from the Panamanian peninsula. I’m not a fearless traveller, but brave enough, and yet I am cautious when the circumstances reasonably call for vigilance. As much as I am enamoured with my blue jug, I wish the memories it triggers did not include anxiety and the cult of fear.