Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A letter from the past

Here's a letter from a fellow writer, written in January 26, 1956. WWII had ended just under eleven years before, and much of Italy, and Sicily, still had not recovered. Dorien Grey was then a 22-year-old American and in his own words "probably was more insensitive to the suffering the Italians/Sicilians had gone through. But they were my impressions at the time". He spent a total of several weeks in and off the waters of Italy, including a trip to Rome and visits to San Remo, Genoa, and Naples.

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25 January 1956
One of those evenings when I feel unaccountably happy to be alive and proud to me a member of the human race (a young and slightly retarded species which occasionally shows signs of promise).
The tour today was nice, but not really worth the money—there was too much riding; two and one half hours to Catania, two and one half hours back, and another half hour to Syracuse, which is in exactly the opposite direction.
I drew several conclusions from it, however; the principle one being that Sicily is by far the most filthy, unattractive, and uninviting place I have ever seen (and in Europe, that's going some). Its towns are huddled clusters of hovels, their unpaved streets lined with the thick-walled monotony of crumbling buildings.
Like the rest of Europe, Sicily is a "land of contrasts," but the good is so outweighed by the bad that the contrasts are dulled by the realization that there is no hope for improvement.
Everything is old; even if a building has been recently built it is old. In the towns, bombed out and fallen buildings are everywhere. Those buildings still standing are being held up only by the tattered political posters plastered all over them.
Never in my life have I seen so many stones; even they are rough, crude, and cumbersome, the color of very dirty linen. Probably because of their abundance they are the chief—no, the only—building material.
Try building a house just by stacking stones on stones. The finished product is then covered with a very thin layer of plaster and painted some quick-fading color. It seems to be a contest to see whether the paint can fade faster than the plaster can flake off. I'd call it a tie.
Wood is completely unknown, except on the thick brown doors. These are always open, showing a dark, tiny interior, amazingly dull. Against the back wall, over a heavy brown-stained vanity, is a cross or other religious symbol. Most of the houses are step-down-into; invariably a woman is seated at a table in front of the vanity, or standing in the doorway, with a very small child peering out from behind her. Other children play in the streets, close in by the walls of the house. School children—all evidently between the ages of six and twelve (I saw none older)—wear black velvet-like smocks with a white collar and a blue string tie.
Women in solid black trudge the streets, coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Old women, all wrinkles and grey hair, sit stooped on crude, heavy wooden chairs, staring into the past.
Around the main square, if there is one, sit the men in baggy pants and dirty, patched shirts. Most of them wear suit-coats which may or may not give the impression they once matched the pants. They sit on the same crude chairs, propped back against a cracked wall, like the condemned at a mass firing squad, and watch our busses pass with no interest.
The young men have long hair and wear ungodly combinations of remnant clothing.
The war ended in 1945 but no one would know by looking at Sicily. German pillboxes line the roads, some with great jagged holes in the thick cement. The ruins of farmhouses stand gaunt and dead on the rocky ground.
And the most aggravating thing is that the people don't seem to care! At one point along the road, two ends of a large bridge reach for each other across a wide, dry river bed. Far below, sections of the bridge lie scattered about, and a large, broken arch leans as though it were wounded and falling. Grass grows on the edges of the bridge and weeds look down from the jagged ends.
Instead of rebuilding this bridge, the government has built a whole new road, which twists down the steep banks, runs across a new, lower cement span, and then winds back up, to join the road on the other side.
Why?


You can read more of Doriens letters at his blog http://www.doriengrey.blogspot.com

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