“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” so begins the opening of L.P. Hartley’s wonderful book The Go-Between. A friend of mine often quotes this line to me when we start to dwell too long in the past. The season is gradually changing, the official end of summer was four days ago, the nights are chilly. Time is flowing and a number of friends are traveling right now: Spain, Germany, Denmark, Amsterdam, and Sicily — foreign countries. The transitory nature of summer to fall and friends traveling sends me back to my past, my foreign country. Sicily for me is a memory of a time when we did things differently, my family, and so did I. I went to Sicily as a teenager and it was the most enchanting trip of all. Everything was ripe, the season, me, the confluence of sensibilities and the beauty of the place. I fell in love with this magical island. My great-grandmother (more on her in another post) was a remarkable person and exceedingly well traveled. She urged me to go and where to stay.
I landed in Taormina which now is well known, less so then, and I stayed in a hotel that was at the foot of the ancient Greek amphitheater, and had an unobstructed view of the town below and Mount Etna in all her glory. It was a hotel that had been there a long time and had been owned by the same family for generations. It had a 19th Century quality to it — even with the mod cons — and the garden, which was all overgrown and lush and mysterious was a realized vision of a Romantic era poet. When I arrived, I was led into my hotel room which faced the garden, the sea, and Etna. I was being shown in by a sweet housemaid, an older lady, who was more than likely born and raised and lived in this impossibly beautiful place her whole life. Even so, when she opened the French doors onto the terrace and all the splendor, and she heard me gasp, she smiled knowingly and said, “Come un sogno” — it’s like a dream. Indeed. I loved that she, who probably did this many times a day for many years, still enjoyed people’s reaction and was so proud of her town.
Goethe spent time in Sicily and wrote some wonderful poems about the island — it certainly seems he was completely taken with it too. I remember the word “bewitching” was an adjective he used. And it was certainly that. Beguiling too. On my trip there, which was quite a long one, I had my official coup de foudre, the lightning bolt of love at first sight. It was wonderful. I think you have to be very young to enjoy that feeling to the bone. You get all tingling and thrilled and every nerve end seems to be vibrating like a tuning fork My young man was tall, handsome, intense, sexy and brooding — all the things that are wildly attractive to young girls. He was marvelous and funny too and I was totally enthralled. I’ve never forgotten him all these years, and I think of him more often than more serious or longer lasting relationships — maybe just because it was that brilliant flash of light.
The day I left he was angry, perhaps the only way to part. We both knew that probably we would never see each other again. Maybe not, we haven’t yet! I wonder if he married, what career he settled on, if he has children, did he stay or move on to a bigger city where there is more advancement. I’ll never know, I suppose. I like to think he stayed, it’s worth staying there. Imagine living in a place that is so beautiful it can bring you to tears? I don’t think he remembers me; I was just another girl passing through, and it doesn’t really matter. I remember him. And, I am grateful to him for being my lightning bolt, and for that foreign country where people do things differently. I can visit, briefly, as an itinerant, stopping for just a moment and then departing. For we all must leave, return to the present, and let the past rest and recede into the fine dust and ash that it is, and that we all one day shall be.
N.b., L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between was a film starring the incomparable Julie Christie, and much missed Alan Bates (pictured above), with the screenplay written by the famous playwright Harold Pinter. The supporting cast is stellar too. Hartley’s other well-known novel The Hireling is also worth reading, and it too was made into a film with Robert Shaw and Sarah Miles who are dark, sexy, neurotic and amazing. Read both, see both. You won’t be disappointed.