Staying Upright, Moving Forward, Part Two
Polyphemus

Staying Upright, Moving Forward, Part Two

Steven Lee Gilbert

Exigent-ly Being Let Down

This is Part Two of a series on moving and starting a business in Sicily. To read Part One, click here.

Beacon, perhaps, gives the wrong impression. Especially now, considering the outcome and the image our first entrepreneurial experience in Sicily has brought to mind, which is not one of guiding light, but of impending shipwreck.

But of course, why not? Sicily’s history is dotted with long periods of foreign dominance—Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Normans, Spain, even the British, those insatiable colonialists, laid administrative claim to it for a handful of fruitless years—any fortune found here, good or bad, likely waxed and waned depending on circumstances beyond the islanders control.

Our false lodestar appeared near a little town called Vizzini, in the southeastern part of the island where we were interested in hosting the inaugural tour for our small boutique travel business, Sicily Connect. There lived a man, R—, who owned a sizable piece of land on which were several houses, a pool, gym, cantina, oodles of natural green space featuring olive, almond, and fruit trees, and was easily accessible as it was central to many historic and picturesque places in Sicily.

We knew from a previous visit that many of the structures and all of the landscape lacked the necessary upkeep and amenities worthy of conquest. Nonetheless, it was a place we could point to on a map and with some level of confidence say: That’ll do.

How many before us had made the same assumption?

Even Ulysses, that hero journeyman, after days at sea arrived on the east coast of Sicily with his crew of hungry men having spotted a cave full of sheep only to be denied by Polyphemus, the monstrous, one-eyed shepherd. They survived (well, most of them anyway) only on account of some wine, cunning and a well-placed wooden spear.

As we were about to learn, our own situation, while not nearly as dire, involved an equally cantankerous, lone marshal. In our case, the lure was not food but free housing.

Home is Where

They say in any survival situation, shelter is the first matter of priority. In the six months prior to leaving the US for Sicily we worked very diligently to thoughtfully and entirely dismantle what was then our home and while survival was not ever at stake, there was, and always will be, something beyond just the physical security of a place that brings comfort. “Home is”, as T.S. Eliot suggested, “the place from which one starts.” A place where we could be ourselves, where we didn’t have to explain ourselves or our reasons, where only the only understanding required was our own. After so much preparation, so much incredibility and forward movement, so much uncertainty, Vizzini, at least in our thoughts, could provide us a place to rest, to give our bodies time to recuperate, our feet to find their footing.

Because R— was interested, himself, in opening a wellness retreat center on his property and because he had little resources other than money, he warmed readily to the suggestion of us moving there for the summer to prepare the grounds and facilities to host travelers who would be needing—and expecting—all the creature comforts of home. In lieu of pay, we suggested free housing and while it seemed like a novel fair trade, in reality, such agreements between proletariats and the bourgeoisie class have been around for millennia, and not in a good way, especially in Italy, where, in Roman times they even had a name for it:

Latifundia: Estates owned by largely by absentee landlords who extracted every bit of wealth from their holdings without much caring about the fates of the people who lived and worked there.

Longing and purpose has often paralleled or even intersected the narratives of others and should never be the reason not to try. And so it was that despite our concerns of both R— and the arrangement, we agreed to come, to organize and get the place ready.

What we found upon returning ten months later was even worse than we had remembered. Instead of homes needing a little TLC, we found something more resembling a frat house on the last day of the spring semester. Piles of trash. Cracked drywall. Floors covered in dirty linens, sinks full of unwashed dishes. Mildewed mattresses. Mold growing on walls. Acres of untended landscape. Before we could even begin to get the place ready for others, we had weeks of work ahead just bringing it up to the shoddy state it was in to begin.

Exigent-ly Being Let Down

When presented with this problem, R— seemed generally unphased, as if he understood our presence there to be precisely for the purpose of attending to the months and months of his apparent neglect. And so that is where we began, because for a home you will do almost anything. Despite a lack of pre-arrangement. Despite a lack of tools. Despite there being no means of finding respite from the totality of fucking ruin.

Whether it was a failure in communication or simply a misunderstanding of what organize and get readyimplied, whatever the reason, we thought we were there to improve the housing conditions so people could eat, sleep, shower and shit in comfort, while R— seemed more interested in how long it might take the three of us to sand the gated entrance and apply a fresh coat of paint (His thought: a couple of weeks; Our thought: never).

It turns out there is a word for this too, Exigent:

Needing immediate action; urgent; pressing;
Requiring a great deal of people, or more than is reasonable.

We are both firm believers that any situation encountered in life presents possibilities for, if not growth, at least learning. So we held tight to our purpose for being there, but in addition to the organizing and getting ready we began documenting what we considered were essential and immediate improvements required before we could even consider something so entirely non-pressing as sanding and painting the gate.

Upon returning from a couple of weeks in Malta, R— responded by complaining about, you guessed it, the freaking gate. I tried to explain our concerns but he argued we couldn’t be trusted and that the situation wasn’t not working out and within minutes asked us to leave. As in now, that day, immediately (thankful again for our four bags, we were gone within the hour!). It was as if when he heard free housing his mindset had turned from one of pseudo-partnership to that of the bourgeoisie (him) and proletariat (us).

That, especially, we were having none of.

To be continued…

Stay tuned for the final Part Three of this post, coming soon.